Alumna helps athletes achieve goals, continue careers

Growing up in a small town, Tona Hetzler (BST ’97) played every sport she could during her junior high and high school days. With a natural affinity for athletics, Hetzler always thought she would someday become a doctor or go into sports psychology. She earned a scholarship to play softball for a junior college, and knowing she wanted to go into medicine, began searching for a four-year university.

Hetzler’s softball skills caught the attention of then-head coach Patti Holthaus, landing her a spot on The University of Tulsa’s softball team. After learning the university offered an athletic training and sports medicine degree, “I thought that was a great combination and made sense for me,” she said. “Once I got into athletic training and realized that I got to help athletes achieve their goals and continue their careers, that’s when it became real for me, and I just knew that’s where I was going to be.”

Hetzler’s most memorable experiences at TU took place on the athletic field, practicing and perfecting the skills taught in the classroom. “Working alongside faculty like Dr. [Robin] Ploeger is one of the things I enjoyed most,” Hetzler recalls. “The instructors really practiced what they preached.”

Hetzler received a graduate assistantship at Oklahoma State University to pursue a master’s degree. She continued to practice athletic training, working with the football and softball programs and also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate students. Hetzler combined a newly discovered passion for education with the experience she gained at TU to help OSU develop its accredited athletic training program.

She stayed at OSU to complete a doctoral degree in education while also serving as clinical coordinator for the athletic training program and was later promoted to program director, overseeing both academics and clinical training. Reflecting on her success at OSU, Hetzler says, “I owe it all to the experience I had at TU. I had such great instructors and got to see all aspects of how the program ran — it was an easy, natural transition for me.”

A decision to move to Springfield, Missouri, with her family presented the next step in Hetzler’s career as head of Missouri State University’s Sports Medicine and Athletic Training department.

Hetzler continues to practice athletic training as a longtime volunteer for the U.S. Paralympics. She works primarily with the track and field team and has traveled to events all over the world, including the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

“It’s definitely an amazing experience and very eye opening,” says Hetzler. “You’re working with individuals who have some sort of disability by society’s definition, yet they are elite athletes who compete at levels within a tenth of a second of an able-bodied gold medal athlete. They just happen to compete in a slightly different way.”

As for the future of the profession, Hetzler says she has already seen significant changes and expects that it will continue to evolve. “The way athletic trainers practice has gone from preventing and caring for injuries as they happen to researching and learning more about concussions, heat illness and other acute conditions. Athletic trainers are serving a much greater purpose than they have previously, and I see that continuing to change.”