Meet the frontline workers who put their athletic careers on hold to help during the pandemic

Marisa Ingemi
·6 min read

Houry Gebeshian has faced the pressure to perform at the highest level possible.

It’s nothing compared to what she does day-to-day now.

A representative of Armenia during the 2016 Olympics, the gymnast works as a surgical physician assistant at the labor delivery floor at a hospital in Ohio. She’s retired from training for gymnastics, but the next step in her career as a physician, mostly operating on pregnant women, takes a lot of elements from her days as an athlete.

“It was tough but manageable,” she said of the balance. “I worked 24-hour shifts and 18-hour shifts. I had those two days to focus on work and the others to train. You worry about the gym while at the gym and work while you’re at work.

“I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, made it to the Olympics. It was time to step away and hopefully build in my career.”

Gebeshian is far from alone.

Women’s athletes often have other careers, and for those who work in the medical industry, it’s doubly challenging. Athletes who work in both at the same time have difficult balances trying to perform at the top of their sport while also focusing on providing healthcare.

Add a pandemic, and some of the healthcare workers on the front lines currently are the same ones audiences have cheered on in athletic forums.

Houry Gebeshian competed for Armenia during the Rio Games. Now she works at an Ohio hospital. (Photos courtesy of Houry Gebeshian)
Houry Gebeshian competed for Armenia during the Rio Games. Now she works at an Ohio hospital. (Photos courtesy of Houry Gebeshian)

Cailey Hutchison spent her first year in the National Women’s Hockey League as a member of the Metropolitan Riveters, commuting to New Jersey from Long Island for games.

When she wasn’t on the ice, she was in medical school at Stony Brook.

“It’s pretty hard but I was really lucky to have another teammate with me on Long Island,” she said. “When I wasn’t driving I would study in the passenger seat and when I was driving I’d make her listen to the lectures on the radio player, so I would study on my way to the rink, and whenever we travel I would have my books with me.

“It’s hard because I’m not super close to my school or practice rink.”

Since COVID-19 has run rampant, she’s been forced to jump head-first into nursing work.

“On the floor, the students aren’t able to go in (the COVID-19) rooms,” she said. “We have to take care of the patients in other areas. As nursing students, we have a teacher shadowing us. On Long Island we had a huge spike, and for the nursing students we canceled (clinical lab work) but there were volunteer opportunities.”

In her first season as a pro, the University of New Hampshire alum netted 11 points in 24 games, all while managing the tightrope act of her two careers.

Like Hutchison, Elena Orlando of the Connecticut Whale works to find that balance, something the NWHL all-star has mastered entering her sixth season in the league.

“For me, planning ahead is key,” she said. “Before the season, I figure out which nights we have practice and then review the hockey schedule when it’s released. From there, I figure out what days I might need to take off from work for games or know what time I need to be out of work in time to make practice. Usually it goes pretty smoothly, but of course sometimes things don’t always go as planned and I’ll adjust my schedule as needed.”

Being a pro or Olympic athlete full-time while working in the medical field takes incredible focus, but doing so in college might be even more challenging.

Some universities don’t let their athletes study medicine, but at the University of Iowa that’s what Gebeshian did.

“That balance of school and training prepared me,” she said. “In college as an athletic training student I had all the pre-med classes and then had to work 20 hours in the athletic training room with athletes on top of training 20 hours a week for myself in gymnastics. Those time-management skills helped me prioritize with gymnastics and classes.”

Molly Blake was the only student-athlete she could think of at Liberty pursuing a nursing degree and playing Division I lacrosse.

Blake’s senior season — and the last of her lacrosse career — was canceled, resulting in her being thrust into her career now in the middle of a pandemic, her days on the field a distant memory.

She now works at the neurotrauma pediatric ICU at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, an epicenter for COVID-19.

“It’s kept me on my toes,” she said. “Every day everything is changing, so it’s about communication and keeping informed. That’s where being an athlete really helped me.”

In some ways, the pressure she faced in college balancing playing high-level lacrosse while studying to work as a medical professional prepared her for the pressure now as a nurse.

In other ways, nothing could prepare a first-year nurse for working during a deadly pandemic.

“You learn to adapt in stressful situations,” Blake said. “It teaches you to stay on your toes. That’s made the transition easier. It’s kind of like going into work, being a nurse is like this is game day. I have to give 100 percent in everything I do.”

Blake and Gebeshian won’t return to their sport, instead adjusting to a world in their careers but without athletic competition.

Hutchison hasn’t had to choose between the two yet, and hopes to keep playing the highest level of hockey while serving her community.

“This year will be a struggle for me,” she said. “It’s my last year of nursing school and we missed a few hours last semester because of COVID so it’ll be a bit more intense, going 7-7 at school then practice. It’s time management and I care so deeply about playing and about nursing. There’s always a way to figure it out.”

As men’s sports continue to return at a more rapid pace, women’s athletics will have to balance the external careers of its athletes, especially those working in healthcare during the coronavirus crisis.

Many have ended their careers early to pursue saving and protecting lives off the field, and some will have choices to make when their sport returns.

For healthcare workers everywhere though, these unprecedented times are changing their lives.

“Every day I went in (during the early stages) it felt like there was a new protocol,” Gebeshian said. “It was like, are we safe or are we not safe? Do we have enough PPE, what are we supposed to do? Those weeks were nerve-wracking.

“But, people are still being born, women are delivering babies, life has to go on with that.”

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