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Student Spotlight: Broken Nose Leads to Career in Sports Medicine

Shauntel Talk, Navajo, is the first Native student admitted to the University of Pittsburgh’s sports medicine program.
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Shauntel Talk’s path to a career in sports medicine began with a broken nose.

Then a high school athlete in Provo, Utah, Talk took a softball to the face, rupturing her nose and causing the first of what would be six sports-related concussions. Instinctively, she tilted her head backward to curb the blood flow.

An athletic trainer quickly corrected Talk, instructing her to lean forward and pinch her nostrils together. In the process, the trainer inadvertently introduced Talk to sports medicine. As soon as she recovered from the concussion—and the $10,000 surgery to realign her nose—Talk, then a sophomore at Timpview High School, began asking questions.

“I had been playing sports for years, mostly softball and basketball, and I was around athletes and coaches all the time,” she said. “But I had no idea what an athletic trainer was until I broke my nose.”

Talk, Navajo, immediately signed up for a sports medicine class, followed quickly by courses in biology and anatomy. By her junior year, she was working as a student athletic trainer. She scored her first internship, at a physical rehabilitation center, before graduating from high school.

“My interest and passion just took off from there,” she said. “I knew, absolutely, that this was what I wanted to do.”

Talk earned a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from Brigham Young University, balancing coursework and clinical rotations with team doctors. Then she began padding her resume with experience as an athletic trainer at the high school and college levels while she researched graduate programs.

Now, half a lifetime since she broke her nose, Talk, 29, is poised to break glass ceilings. The first Native American admitted to the sports medicine program at the University of Pittsburgh, Talk is eyeing a coveted position with the National Football League.

“My ultimate goal is to be an athletic trainer with the Pittsburgh Steelers,” she said. “I have known for a long time that I wanted to be in sports medicine. Now I know I want to go professional.”

Courtesy Shauntel Talk

Shauntel Talk poses on a hill overlooking Pittsburgh with Melissa McLane, team physician for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That goal could be an uphill battle, said Kevin Conley, chairman of the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. As a Native American seeking a position with professional athletes, Talk is a minority within a minority.

According to the most recent statistics from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, jobs working for professional sports teams account for only 2.3 percent of the industry, or roughly 1,300 positions out of a total 46,500 jobs in the country. Of those positions, 57 percent are held by white athletic trainers while Natives account for .001 percent. As of March 2016, only two Native Americans held athletic training jobs with professional sporting teams.

Jobs are even more limited in the NFL, Conley said. With only 32 teams in the league, and two or three trainers per team, that means fewer than 90 people in the country land these prestigious jobs.

“It is very difficult to break into the NFL,” Conley said. “Positions are rarely available, and when they are they’re very competitive.”

But Talk is no stranger to challenge. A second-generation college student and the first in her family to be admitted to graduate school, she’s been beating the odds since she was a child.

Talk’s parents met while participating in the Indian Student Placement Program, an initiative operated by the Mormon Church that placed Native students in white Mormon homes—mainly in Utah—during the school year. As teens, Talk’s parents left their homes on the Navajo Nation and moved to Heber City, Utah, in search of opportunity.

Years later, that same love of education inspired them to move their own family to Utah, Talk said. Although she spent her early years in Sheep Springs, a small community in the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation, Talk—just like her parents before her—said goodbye to extended family and relocated to Utah.

“My parents wanted to live on the reservation, but they started a family,” she said. “They thought being in Utah would give us more opportunity. So we left the reservation, which was hard. In the Navajo culture, family is important. You learn a lot from your grandparents.”

Once settled in Utah, however, Talk thrived. She took after her father, who coached football and taught health education. And by the time she finished college in 2011, she knew she would match—and surpass—her parents’ accomplishments.

Then came another hurdle. While working full-time with collegiate athletes and preparing for graduate school, Talk was flattened by an autoimmune connective tissue disease that left her temporarily paralyzed.

“I woke up one day and I couldn’t move,” she said. “My muscles just failed me.”

After seeking help from seven different doctors, Talk, then 26, found a specialist at the University of Utah who started her on a rigorous treatment plan. In the meantime, Talk was sidelined, left to wonder if she’d have any future at all.

“During that time, they weren’t able to tell me if I’d be able to walk again, or use my hands again,” she said. “It was a really scary time. I didn’t know what, if anything, I would get back.”

After a year of treatment, Talk began to recover. She relearned basic tasks and slowly regained strength, eventually returning to a regimen of running and weight-lifting.

“At this point, people were telling me I should change my profession,” she said. “I decided not to quit. I went through this horrible thing, but I still wanted to live my dreams.”

Talk decided to apply to graduate schools during the fall of 2015. One year later, she relocated to Pittsburgh, home of three professional sports teams: the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins.

Even if she doesn’t become the first Native to score a full-time job with the NFL, Talk is already forging new ground at the University of Pittsburgh.

“We seem to attract students from all over the country and from all backgrounds,” Conley said. “Until now, we have not had a Native student.”

Courtesy Shauntel Talk

Shauntel Talk poses with Ron Roth, emergency medicine consultant for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Although Talk has her sights set on the NFL, even that is just a step toward her ultimate goal: returning to the Navajo Nation to open a sports medicine clinic and reach out to students who, like herself, may not know about careers in athletic training.

“My dad wanted to go back to the reservation and be a teacher, a coach,” Talk said. “He never got the chance to go back, but I do. I feel like there’s a need, that Navajo people don’t have access to this. And I’m hoping to fulfill what my dad wanted to do.”