Vacala Credits WIU for Olympic Career

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The best athletes in the world are preparing for the Olympic Games in Paris this summer. Western Illinois University alumna Mary Vacala (‘79) has a strong connection to the game.

Vacala was a part of the WIU women’s field hockey team from 1975-79 but a love of athletic training was sparked after suffering an injury.

Vacala (back, right) celebrates a gold-medal win with the USA men’s wheelchair basketball team

“That marked my first experience in an athletic training room,” Vacala said. “I was instantly captivated. Two days later, I met Gail Weldon, the head trainer and first female athletic trainer hired by the U.S. Olympic Committee. I knew then I had found my calling and aspired to reach the Olympics myself.”

That experience inspired her to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Kinesiology Education in 1979 and 1980 respectively. She used her education to be a medical provider for the best athletes in the world from 1993 to 2021.

Vacala was a medical coordinator and a chief athletic trainer in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. She was also selected to the Team USA medical staff in 2000, 2004, 2016 and 2020 for the Paralympic games in Sydney, Athens, Rio and Tokyo. During that time, she was the trainer for multiple gold-medal winning teams, including three at the Paralympics, two at the ParaPan American Games and two Copa de Americas Championships.

She said her most vivid Olympic memories involve not just the athletic successes but the atmosphere around the events.

“There is no feeling quite like walking into a stadium filled with people from around the world, all cheering for athletes who have dedicated their lives to reaching this pinnacle,” Vacala said. “Walking around the Olympic Village was always mesmerizing. You would see athletes from all over the world walking side by side, putting aside their political and religious differences for the love of sport.”

Vacala has maintained a strong connection to WIU, helping several student interns become a part of the Olympic training process.

Vicki Sama, Margot Bilanin, Leslie Jefferson, Mary Vacala, Karen Strollo Miles and Kathy Veroni pose at the 50-year Title IX anniversary celebration held by WIU in 2023

“WIU provided me with opportunities, experiences and the drive to excel as an athletic trainer and beyond,” Vacala said. “I worked alongside elite professionals in various men’s and women’s sports, which boosted my confidence to pursue all my dreams. WIU’s support and faculty were crucial in shaping my career path.”

Vacala now resides in Georgia where she co-owns three urgent care clinics with a former student, with the motto ‘Your family is our family.’ She recently retired from athletic training duties with the Paralympics but her legacy will still be felt as one of her mentees is going to Paris this year.

On July 3, it was announced that Vacala’s 1978 Women’s Field Hockey team was a part of the 2024 WIU Athletics Hall of Fame class. The team finished the season with a record of 15-4-1 after starting with 13 consecutive wins. The team scored 40 goals on the season and posted 13 shutouts.

“I had the privilege of being coached by Kathy Veroni, a professional athlete whose dedication to the sport and her players was unparalleled,” Vacala said. “As a member of some exceptional teams at WIU, it was not only an honor, but it taught me to embrace collaboration, communication and respect.”

For more information on WIU’s Athletic teams, visit goleathernecks.com.

***Courtesy of Western Illinois University***

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