THE INTELLECTUAL TRAINER
“We’ve had a lot of great women athletic trainers,” says UC Santa Barbara’s head trainer Leroy Heu. Several have moved up in the profession, including Nina Hsieh, who took care of the Gaucho women’s basketball team in 2004-08 and 10 years later served as head athletic trainer with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Emma Connelly continues the training tradition. Along with Claire Stovall, a newer addition to the training staff, Connelly has tended to athletes on eight UCSB teams, working tirelessly and consistently, during unique times and through injuries beyond the physical. “We were the backbone of managing the COVID process,” Heu says, “and mental health has played a greater role.”
Connelly has earned the absolute trust of athletes like Ila Lane, an elite women’s basketball player, and Gracie Lockwood, a swimmer with cerebral palsy.
“She’s beyond an athletic trainer,” says Lane, with whom Connelly has worked for four years. “She cares about your well-being, not just physically but mentally, and she cares about your life outside of sports. We share thoughts, meditate, learn to cope with stress. Emma emphasizes you have to be mentally prepared. If you’re not in a good place mentally, it affects your performance.”
Lockwood says Connelly enables her to compete in swimming, “the only sport I could do without pain.” The UCSB sophomore hopes to go to the Paralympic Games in 2024. “Emma is an intellectual trainer,” she says. “She has creative agency. She comes up with ideas to make things work. I text her daily. What should I work on? Or sometimes, do you want coffee?”
Connelly’s aspirations to be a soccer star in Orange County were eclipsed when she developed a serious spinal condition. “I asked myself, ‘How can I be part of sports?’” she says. “I decided I could help athletes get through hard times as a trainer.”
After receiving her master’s degree in athletic training at the University of Hawai’i, Connelly stayed on working at the school. “I was the only female on the baseball staff,” she says. “There were no women’s restrooms in the home locker area. I used a restroom for the coaches and was the only one to lock the door. I got yelled at a lot.”
Heu, a native of Hawai‘i, met Connelly at a meeting of the Far West Athletic Trainers Association and recruited her to UCSB. “She’s a great hire,” he says.
Connelly says she is inspired by women like Kelly Barsky, who has been running UCSB sports as interim athletic director for the past year.
“Barsky is a badass woman,” Connelly says. “How is she able to do all she does? I’m here because of strong women who taught me to be strong.”