Source: Valley Roadrunner

VCHS athletic trainer Aki required to return to Japan while awaiting green card

July 25, 2013

Valley Center High School’s sports teams have a reputation of being competitive, well-coached and organized, and the athletes who play for the Jaguars usually find that they are better prepared for success in life because of the experience.

A key member of the VCHS athletic department is trainer Akiko Yoshiyama, or as she is known to the students, Aki.

Aki hails from Otsu City, Japan, a town northeast of Osaka. She came to the United States 12 years ago to go to school and pursue a career in sports medicine.

And after seven years working with the students at VCHS, Aki has been required to return to Japan to wait out the process of obtaining a green card to remain in the United States.

Upon hearing the news, many in the community have expressed their best wishes for Aki to return to Valley Center as quickly as possible.

VCHS senior Delaney Cummings has seen firsthand the value that Aki brings to the athletes of the community.

“I'm a senior at the high school and have known Aki for a long time now,” she says. “She is always there for us as athletes and is there to help within seconds of an injury. Not only does she do her job so well but she really cares for all of us and we all love her so much. She is someone that Valley Center cannot afford to lose.”

Victoria Navarro, who graduated from VCHS in 2011, echoed her appreciation for Aki's many talents.

“I was a year-round athlete and Akiko was by my side the whole time,” she says. “Seriously I do not know what I would have done without her. There's no water that compares to Aki's water!”

And the parents of the community see how much care and expertise Aki brings to her job in the way she takes care of their children on the field.

“Akiko is an amazing trainer who almost always has a smile on her face,” says local mom Kelly Stansel. “She patched up my son when he fractured his arm during football and kept an eye on him through two concussions. It saddens our family to hear she will be gone, but we look forward to her speedy return. She is an important member of our community and will be missed! Hurry home Aki!”

“She helped my son Dade through a minor heat stroke and is always so very sweet on the field and off,” says Shannon Nelson. “Thanks Aki! We hope for a swift return!”

Akiko says she came to America to follow her dreams, and she hopes to come back to her adopted home as soon as she can.

“I wanted to be an athletic trainer, and this is the only country that licenses athletic trainers, so I pretty much had to come here,” she says with a laugh.

Since she spoke very little English before coming to America, Aki says it was difficult to learn the language at first.

“When I first got here, I lived with an American family, and it almost forced me to have to use English every day,” she says. “But that was good because I got to hear it more, so I was able to memorize it and learn to speak it.”

Aki went to Mira Mesa College at first, then transferred to San Diego State, where she graduated in 2005. She started at VCHS in the summer of 2006, and says she enjoys being a part of our community.

“I like it here,” she says. “Well, I don’t really know about the weather—it gets pretty hot up here. But I really like the people—the students, the coaches, the teachers. And it’s nice when you live in San Diego, you don’t get to see the country that much.”

As for working with high school athletes, Aki says that she experienced working for a professional sports team at first, but found that it wasn’t something she wanted to pursue.

“I had an internship with the Padres in 2005, but I figured out that working in the pros is really not the place for me,” she says. “For one thing, it’s very rare for a pro team to have a female trainer. The only one I know of is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a female trainer from Japan. But also, I felt that when I was working for a pro team, I only did what they wanted me to do. And there’s a lot to worry about besides just doing my job.”

At VCHS, Aki is on hand for games and practices every day that the school teams are in action.

“It depends on the day, but when football’s in season, I go to their practices every day,” she says. “But otherwise, I’m in my office, or I walk around to the different practices. All the coaches have my cell phone number, or they can get ahold of me on the radio. I’m always available to whichever team needs me.”

Aki also says she’s a big sports fan, especially of the NFL and the NBA. Remarking on the NFL’s recent focus on the issue of concussions, she says that it’s of utmost importance to take head injuries seriously, especially when dealing with high school students.

“High school athletes are more prone to concussions than NFL players because they’re still young and their brains aren’t fully developed,” she says. “Another reason is that younger players don’t have the same neck strength—it’s like whiplash, and they’re not able to tighten the neck muscles as well. I try to work with our athletes to strengthen their neck muscles and to use their mouth guards. Those two things will help prevent a lot of concussions.”

In the midst of the NFL’s increased attention on concussions, the league has more strictly enforced the existing rules designed to prevent helmet-to-helmet hits, and has created new rules to prevent further injury when a player has or is suspected of having a concussion.

Aki says that the rules in high school football are strict when it comes to players with suspected concussions, but she takes the precautions a step further.

“In high school, if a player is even suspected of having a concussion, he’s not allowed to go back into the game or practice for the rest of that day, and he must be cleared by a medical doctor before he can return,” she says. “My rules are a little more strict. I pull him out and tell his parents to get him to the doctor, and he has to sit out the rest of that day, but even after he’s cleared by the doctor, I test them with some basic physical tests before I let them get back in there.”

One way that pro sports teams and collegiate athletic programs are able to properly diagnose a concussion is by using baseline testing, which tests the basic motor functions of each athlete before the season, then uses those results to compare with a similar test given to an athlete suspected of having a concussion.

Aki says that baseline testing is effective when possible, but at the high school level, she has to find creative ways of monitoring a student-athlete’s normal motor function.

“It’s hard for high schools to afford [baseline testing], and even if we could afford it, I’m the only one here, so it would be hard for me to do all the tests for every athlete we have,” she says. “But when we have a kid with a possible concussion, I talk to his coaches, I talk to his teammates, and I talk to his friends to see if he’s acting weird or if everything looks normal. Sometimes a behavior will look weird to me, but if he’s like that all the time, then I can find that out from the people who know him.”

Aki adds that the athletes and coaches at VCHS are exemplary when it comes to being aware and taking care of the long-term well-being of the players.

“Our coaches have a good understanding of concussions, and they don’t argue with me,” she says. “Just to make sure they know what’s at stake, I like to scare them a little bit, you know, and it’s the same with the players. I’ll say, ‘This is your life on the line,’ or something like that, just to let them know that it’s about more than just this game.”

And the players respect Aki’s word as their trainer, according to football player Zach Blanco.

“She’s the toughest trainer I’ve seen,” he says. “She doesn’t let you get away with anything. She always says, ‘If you can play on it, then play on it,’ but she knows if it’s serious, and her word is final. She’s one of the best trainers in the league.”

Aki has a cousin named Yoko who lives in San Francisco, but the rest of her family is back in Japan, including her dad, Mamoru; her mom, Noriko; her older sister, Masako; and her younger sister, Yasuko.

Along with watching sports, Aki enjoys going skiing, a favorite activity of hers since she was three years old.

“I love to go skiing when I have the time,” she says. “I started when I was three years old, and my first pair of skis was plastic and about a foot long. It’s probably my favorite thing to do in my time off, but unfortunately, it’s also probably the most expensive.”