As any successful team knows, it is often the behind-the-scenes work that is most important. For 29 years and counting, Tara Lepp has been quietly serving Linfield College students both on and off the field, as a professor and as head athletic trainer for the Wildcat sport programs.
Lepp was hired in 1982, making history as the college’s first Certified Athletic Trainer.
“There wasn’t anybody like me before I came,” she says.
During her first 23 years at Linfield, Lepp wore three very important hats: head athletic trainer, professor and director of the athletic training education program.
One of her biggest hurdles was getting the college’s athletic training academic program accredited. That was a necessary task to ensure Linfield’s athletic training students could become board certified. It was a long road to accreditation, one that lasted four years.
“It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Lepp says of the process.
But the hard work paid off. Linfield can now boast that it is one of just three accredited athletic training programs in the state. Oregon State University and George Fox University are the two others.
Linfield’s program is not only rare; it is exceptional. Graduates regularly move on to higher education in graduate programs, physical therapy school or medical school, or enter the workforce, finding employment in sports medicine clinics, high schools and industrial settings.
“Our program has an excellent reputation,” Lepp says. “People really want our students because they are well prepared.”
Such great preparation can be attributed to the immense hands-on learning the student trainers experience, as well as Lepp’s leadership.
Brooke Bekkedahl, senior athletic training student and track athlete, said one of Lepp’s greatest attributes is her ability to encourage students to reach their full potential.
“She challenges us to realize our weaknesses and make them our strengths,” Bekkedahl says. “She challenges us to do our best and strive for perfection.”
In addition to the high praise she has received from her students, Lepp is also highly regarded by her peers. She was recently inducted into the Oregon Athletic Trainers’ Society Hall of Fame.
Outside of the classroom, the Head Athletic Trainer is responsible for the care of approximately 450 Wildcat student-athletes, helping them both prevent and treat injuries sustained on the field or court.
There are obvious benefits to working directly with student-athletes. Lepp says one of the things she enjoys most about her job is building relationships with the students she serves.
Winning is fun, too. During her time at Linfield, Lepp has been a part of five national championship teams: four football squads and one softball club.
“The success of our athletic teams makes work enjoyable,” she says.
But the job does not come without sacrifice, the biggest being time. Lepp has grown accustomed to seven-day workweeks with little time off. Like the student-athletes she serves, she attends every practice and every game, arriving early and leaving late.
“She really does put others before herself,” Bekkedahl said. “She’s constantly caring about [athletes’] needs."
“I’m passionate about what I do, but it gets tiring,” Lepp concedes.
Faced with such a demanding job, one might assume that Lepp takes as much personal time as she can. In fact, the opposite is true.
At least once a year, Lepp spends time volunteering in Kenya, a place she calls her “second home.” Since 2005, she has spent a month there each summer. She also spent two months in the country while on sabbatical in the spring of 2009, doing research on traditional African medicine.
Lepp volunteers through a Portland-based organization called Open Arms International. Each summer, she travels with their outreach/medical teams to provide free medical care for Africans living in the slums of Kambi Teso, outside the major city of Eldoret, Kenya.
Serving the underprivileged can be a life-changing experience. Lepp says she has not made many changes in her life since beginning her volunteer work, as she already tries to live simply. But she acknowledges that the things she has witnessed as a volunteer have challenged the way she thinks about luxuries in the Western world.
Lepp tells a story of experiencing reverse culture shock after returning from a service trip to Russia in 1994.
“When I got back, I wanted to sell all of my things and donate the proceeds to the orphanage,” she recalls. She also remembers finding it difficult to attend a wedding soon after she returned “knowing that the cost of the flowers could have fed those children for an entire month.”
This school year provided an opportunity for her to pass on the valuable lesson of perspective to others. Over Linfield’s January Term, she took 11 students to Kenya as part of a study-abroad course titled Health Care in Kenya. Participating students came from multiple academic disciplines, both the expected (athletic training and nursing) and the unexpected (accounting, art and music).
The trip served two major purposes: to provide a first-hand look at global health education and to serve those in need.
Over the course of their stay, students provided medical care at clinics similar to the ones Lepp volunteers at during the summers. They also worked on non-medical projects, including painting a mural on the new house built for children living in the village built by Open Arms International.
Bekkedahl was one of the 11 students who traveled to Kenya.
When asked about her decision to make the trip, she said, “It was about wanting to have an eye-opening experience. I wanted to see things I have never seen and probably will never see again.”
The greatest takeaway?
“There’s so much more out there in the world,” Bekkedahl said of what she gained from the experience. “There really are starving kids in Africa, and I fed them.”
Living on another continent for weeks at a time is another huge sacrifice for Lepp, but it is one she gladly makes.
“I do it gladly because I’m so excited for the impact it’s going to have on students’ lives,” she had said before the trip.
Between serving Linfield’s students on and off the field and her tireless efforts to help Kenyans living in poverty, it is clear that Lepp is a person who truly lives for others.
Lepp says there wasn’t anybody like her before she came to Linfield. It’s not much of a stretch to think that still holds true today.
-- Katherine Brackmann