Updated: Oct 14, 2019
She's Smart, She's Tough And She's Making A Name In The Sports Therapy Industry!
Heather Liden has made her way through the mostly male-dominated industry of Sports Physical Therapy. Having worked with prestigious athletes not only within the UFC but the United States Olympic Committee. We sit down with her to find out how she manages to dominate in her field and what she has done to get there.
Like Most Las Vegans they are from somewhere else. I understand you are originally from Milford New Jersey, How did you end up in Las Vegas?
My physical therapy journey has always had a huge impact on my life. Since I was a kid, I always loved to travel and spend time discovering the World. Having a father as a pilot, I was very fortunate to travel for vacation and pleasure all throughout growing up. After spending most of my childhood in New Jersey, I moved to Virginia to pursue my education. I went to undergraduate school at Virginia Tech and then finished my doctorate at Old Dominion University. After graduate school, I decided to head out west. I knew this was my opportunity to check the west coast out so I moved there not knowing anyone. I started a position at a multi-disciplinary outpatient clinic in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, a few months in all of the great PTs I had for mentoring left to pursue different sporting options, which left me as a new graduate and in charge of an entire facility. Me being the kind of person who doesn't give up took the lead role and not only did physical therapy but also did advertising, PR, and billing for the facility. I spent most of my off time doing continuing education and learning as much about the physical therapy world as possible. About three years into working outpatient physical therapy my mom told me about the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) medical volunteer program. I was very eager to apply but realized you needed 5 years' experience before they would consider you. Therefore, as you can imagine, at my 5-year mark I submitted an application to be a part of a 2-week volunteer program that would assist them in helping athletes. When my application was accepted, I spoke with my current boss and worked out an agreement so I could pursue my longtime dream of working with sports. Who knew, after my time there the USOC would ask me to apply for a position they had available. 6 weeks later, I moved my whole life to Colorado to work with the Olympic Team. I spent almost 6 years there, was a part of the 2012 London Olympics, 2014 Sochi Olympics, 2015 Parapan Am Games, 2016 Norway Youth Olympics, and the 2016 Rio Olympics. These six years taught me a lot about the type of clinician I wanted to be and definitely gave me the skill set I needed to pursue a leading position in sports. A little over a year and a half ago, I was fortunate to have the UFC reach out to me about their director position at the new Performance Institute. After speaking with them, I knew it was the perfect fit and now here I am in Las Vegas.
What got you into physical therapy?
Growing up I was a total tomboy and loved playing all the sports the boys were doing. I have always had a huge passion for athletics and played multiple sports throughout my life. My first year at Virginia Tech, I knew I wanted to do something medical but after shadowing our football team physical therapist I knew this was the career I wanted to pursue. Not only did you get to influence an athlete's career but you also get to mix medicine and sport. Sports physical therapy has been my goal since freshman year of college.
I know that prior to being involved with the UFC Performance Institute you were working with the United States Olympic Training Center. What did you do there?
I was hired at the USOC initially as a healthcare service provider whose main duties were to take care of both our summer and winter Olympic hopefuls and Olympians. I was based out of the Colorado Springs facility where we could house approximately 500 athletes. Day to day we would care for our athletes, cover practices, travel to domestic and international events, and evaluate our athletes to help prevent injuries. After my first year, I was promoted to an Electronic Medical Record Manager and Healthcare provider. I worked with GE and developed an electronic customizable health system that we could now pull analytics and track day-to-day injury progress of our athletes. We unveiled the system at the London Olympics where I was there supporting Team USA. Over the next few years, I was promoted to Senior Level Healthcare Provider and would be paired with high medal potential teams several months out from the Olympic games to ensure we were providing our athletes with good continuity of care. I supported Team USA at three Olympic Games (London, Sochi, and Rio), was the medical director for the Youth Winter Olympic Games, and lastly was fortunate to travel to Parapan Am Games to support our Paralympic Team. During my journey, I was fortunate to work with some of the best medical providers and the best athletes around the world. I truly owe this experience to shaping my career.
How did you transition to working with the UFC Performance Institute?
During the last few years at the USOC, I definitely saw they started getting away from an athlete-centered model and were focusing more on athlete research. I knew there wasn't a ton of growth there for me as a provider so I was ecstatic when the UFC contacted me. Initially, I did not know a ton about UFC but had a ton of combat sport (wrestling, judo, taekwondo, boxing, gymnastics) experience, which was a rare quality to have as a physical therapist. Transitioning to the UFC could not have gone more smoothly. The Performance Institute opened in June 2017 and the entire team all relocated to Vegas around the same time. Now, I truly am a part of the best multi-disciplinary team that has ever worked together in sport. Each one of us are truly great in our professions but as a team, we are FEARLESS! Moreover, we cannot wait to impact the MMA world and change UFC.
As a woman working in a primarily male dominated industry, can you tell us about the pros and cons that you have experienced?
Initially, in my career, I definitely felt at a slight disadvantage secondary to being a female. However, this was many years ago when it was a bit more difficult to break into the sports world. Most of the professional sports organizations had their physical therapy offices in the male locker rooms so I understand where sports organizations had to be a bit cautious. But for me, this was only a small challenge I had to overcome. I felt if I was the best at what I do in every way possible there really wasn't any reason why any organization could play the male/female card. So now professionally the advice I give to women who are breaking into a male dominated industry just make sure you have the experience and tools in your toolbox to be the BEST candidate possible.
PROS: shaped me professionally to who I am today, made me more driven, sometimes athletes feel more comfortable talking to a female provider.
CONS: initially harder to break into the sports world (13 years ago it was a different world), sometimes my athletes can be 2-3x bigger than me.
Tell us one memorable experience you have had in your line of work (good or bad)
One??? Gosh, there are so many I am not sure I can pick just one moment. My entire career has been nothing but memorable experiences and I can say that for the positive. From seeing some of the Olympic athletes accomplish their life goals of making it to an Olympic Games and standing on the podium, to TJ Oshie shooting the game-winning overtime goal against Russia, to the UFC fighters walking into an Octagon healthy after being injury stricken, to seeing a UFC team understand performance and how it is game-changing. There are so many memorable experiences and truly, every day is an honor working with athletes. Even when I have seen athletes not achieve their goals, it's always amazing to see them come back from defeat and become an even better athlete.
Who has been the biggest influence in your life and career?
There have been many people that have influenced me into who I am today. These people have affected my character and the moral values that I own. However, in my life, I would definitely say my mom and dad have been my biggest influences. They have always pushed me and supported me in achieving my professional dreams. They have taught me to rise to any challenge and have always been there whether it's easy or hard. They have always motivated me to never give up and truly have shaped the person/practitioner I am today.
From a career standpoint, I have worked with amazing medical providers that have influenced sports all over the world. I had a team that taught me a ton of skills at the USOC and now I am truly part of the best-integrated team at the Performance Institute who pushes me every day to be better. I get to work day in and day out with some of the most brilliant people in their respected professions. I would say I'm pretty lucky!
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