Carolina People

Carolina People: Nina Walker

There’s so much involved in creating what you see on game days, says men’s lacrosse athletic trainer Nina Walker. “There’s a team behind the team. We typically work very long hours, and nobody really knows we’re there.”

Woman in mask carrying gear bag in a locker room with athletes who also wear masks.
“I’ve won really great awards, including a national championship. But I think the moments that I’m most proud of are when I get to really know my patient or my student-athlete, and they trust me with both their physical and mental health,” says Nina Walker (pictured above), staff athletic trainer for men’s lacrosse. (Photo by Jack Baddour)

Nina Walker
staff athletic trainer
men’s lacrosse
15 years at Carolina

Describe a typical day in your job.

I don’t know that typical is actually part of my job description.

My day usually starts somewhere between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning with getting the athletes ready for practice. I work with an amazing staff. I have two graduate assistant athletic trainers and an athletic training student. We usually tape the athletes up, get them ready, do some stretching, some preventative work, check in to make sure that anyone that was sick or ill is feeling better and talk to the athletes about their limitations for practice. Anything could happen during practice. If anyone sustains an injury during practice, we will take care of that.

Practice usually ends around 11:30. After that we will have treatments, which is rehabilitation for the student-athletes. So, for about an hour, some of the guys will come in, do their exercises or their maintenance work to try to prevent injuries. We’ll have another treatment session from 3:30 to 5:00 to accommodate some of the athletes’ class schedules. It’s a pretty full day. In the middle, between noon and 3:00, I eat — sometimes — and take care of meetings and administrative work.

How does your job support Carolina’s mission?

Obviously, the health and safety of the student-athletes is really important. But I also have a lot of other positions here. I’m the director of the Observer program, which is an opportunity for undergraduate students to learn about athletic training and actually have an opportunity to shadow athletic trainers. I’m also responsible for the emergency management of athletics. We have a committee of sports medicine professionals that look at things like catastrophic injuries, our venues, how to keep everyone safe. We had a great meeting a couple of weeks ago with EMS and the police and fire departments so that we can make sure that our venues are safe. I also do some work with the athletic eating disorder treatment team. I think all of those things really support Carolina’s mission.

What accomplishment or moment in your work at Carolina are you proudest of?

I’ve been fortunate to work with some really great people, and I’ve won really great awards, including a national championship. But I think the moments that I’m most proud of are when I get to really know my patient or my student-athlete, and they trust me with both their physical and mental health. We have the ability to take someone who maybe wasn’t in a great place and make them successful. So, while awards are nice, and winning is nice, what’s more important and more special for me is when someone says, “You’re the only person that knows this,” or “Thank you for listening to me,” or “I really appreciate you taking time.” I’ve had three conversations like that this week already.

What inspires or motivates you every day?

What motivates me every day is looking at how I can do better for our community. I not only work with UNC, but I also hold leadership positions with our state Athletic Trainers’ Association. I am a liaison for USA Lacrosse, and I’ve worked on an international level as well, as the co-chair for the World Lacrosse sports medicine working group. So, what inspires me is the ability to make sports safer for everyone — not just the most elite athletes here at Carolina, but little kids playing lacrosse all over the country in youth sports all the way up to the world champions. Being able to make sure that sports are safe at every single level is what inspires me to work hard every day, learn the most every day and push myself every day to be the best athletic trainer I can be.

What first drew you to sports?

I love sports. I played basketball. I played lacrosse when I was really young. I ran track for 12 seasons. I absolutely loved the energy and the commitment. But I also knew that I was always going to be involved in medicine. Originally, I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. I took all the classes in college to take my MCATs. But I also was an athletic training major. Once I got involved with it, I fell in love with the fact that student-athletes are great patients that really want to be better. So, I abandoned the doctor thing and pursued being an athletic trainer. I came here for grad school, and I’ve been in love with the profession ever since.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Well, there’s not a lot of that “spare time” that you speak of. I live in Durham, and I love the art vibe there. I love the community and going out to food trucks and listening to some music outdoors or on a rooftop deck. That’s the perfect day, for me to be able to chill, be with my friends, listen to some great music or look at some great artwork and relax.

What else do you want readers to know about your job?

A lot goes into sports, and I think everybody enjoys watching them, but most don’t understand how athletes get there, the commitment and the things that they have to do in order to be successful — but also the people who support them, like athletic trainers, academic coordinators, dietitians, sports psychologists, and strength and conditioning coaches. There’s so much involved in creating what you see on Saturdays and Sundays. There’s a team behind the team. We typically work very long hours, and nobody really knows that we’re there. Which is good, because if people know that I’m there, that’s probably bad, because that means something terrible has happened. But I think it’s awesome to be a part of a team that cares as much as we do about the athletes here at Carolina.