Associate Professor Alexandre Lopes spent two weeks in South Korea researching athlete injuries in during the 2018 Winter Olympics. (Courtesy of Alexandre Lopes/UMass Lowell)
UMass Lowell was closer to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games than many students or faculty members might think. Despite being separated by a day’s worth of flying and the vast Pacific Ocean, the university’s presence was still felt in Pyeongchang.
Associate professor of physical therapy Alexandre Lopes spent two weeks in South Korea as a researcher for the Brazilian national team. Lopes has been to six Olympic games since 2002, as both a researcher and as a physical therapist for the Brazilian athletes. His most recent gig in Pyeongchang was as a researcher with a focus on preventing injuries and illnesses in elite athletes.
Lopes worked with around 3,000 athletes from over 90 countries in Pyeongchang. He says that the countries involved in the study worked closely with him and the research team, saying that he believes at least 90 percent of the countries participating in the Olympics submitted daily reports through an electronic system.
“This study will contribute to better planning and provision of athlete healthcare and, importantly, inform the development of measures to prevent injury and illness. This experience is providing me a chance to understand more about epidemiological study with elite athletes,” said Lopes in an interview via email.
Working with such a large and varied population of athletes came with its fair share of challenges, said Lopes. The Pyeongchang games operated with two Olympic Villages and two polyclinics, along with the 25 different venues of competition, spreading out the data pool considerably.
“The main challenge is [obtaining] an accurate data regarding injury and illness in a daily basis from the medical department of all countries participants,” Lopes said.
Lopes relishes the experience of attending each Olympic Games. “Each Olympics is a completely new experience. The cultural influence of the host country is the main reason why each Olympics is unique,” he said.
Beyond that, the Olympic Games are the perfect venue for him to embark on his ambitious research. The study will help physical therapists exercise prevention of injuries, which Lopes says is the most efficient treatment for any athlete. The data that he and the research team will compile and analyze will hopefully lead to better athlete healthcare.
In his years of research, Lopes says that he has found a rather interesting link between the injuries of elite athletes and the recreational athletes that he has treated: high levels of motivation. Athletes’ relentless drive to perform can produce extraordinary results on the field, but can also lead to neglecting injuries, which can make the problem that much worse to solve.
“When you are so motivated, you are not able to hear your body signal that you are training too much,” said Lopes.
He says it is especially true in the case of recreational athletes, who may never find themselves at the Olympics but still push their limits for the love of the game and their wish to show their family and friends their skill.
Lopes understands the passion that those athletes have for their craft. As a teenager in Brazil, Lopes said that he wanted to work in “all kinds of sports,” and a visit to a career fair made him realize that he could find a way to do so by pursuing sport physical therapy.
Lopes’ dedication to sports and previous experience as a physical therapist for the Brazilian national team in his first four Olympic Games made him a perfect candidate to join as a researcher for the Rio and Pyeongchang Games.
The experience has been nothing short of exhilarating for him, he says. Having the chance to help athletes stay healthier longer is one of the utmost priorities in his research.
“The most rewarding part of being a collaborator of this amazing research team is the feeling that you are helping athletes to prevent injuries. After many years helping and treating athletes as physical therapist, I do not have any doubt that the most efficient treatment is prevention,” said Lopes.