John Atkins is a king of rehab |

John Atkins is a king of rehab

Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyJohn Atkins, right, gives Edward Dietrich some pointers on how to get the most effective stretch out of his exercises. Edwards was rehabilitating his knee Friday at the Howard Head clinic in Vail.

VAIL ” John Atkins didn’t want to keep talking about himself. He wanted to talk about his teams.

“I’m a team guy,” he said. “I love that.”

Yes, being inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame is a great individual honor. But, for Atkins, his selection is a reflection of his teams’ accomplishments.

“I was on a great team with the U.S. Ski Team,” Atkins said. “I was on a great team at the Steadman clinic when I left the team in ’84. And now I’m part of a great Howard Head rehab team.”

Atkins, 60, is part of the Class of 2007 for the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame.

The athletic trainer has treated thousands of athletes at Vail’s Howard Head Clinic, mostly average Joes, but his patients have included a lot of world-class athletes, from pro surfers to NFL linebackers.

He was the trainer and conditioning coach for the U.S. Alpine Women’s Ski Team in the early ’80s, when the team won the Nation’s Cup and member Tamara McKinney became the first ” and still only ” American woman to win the World Cup overall title.

McKinney, who now lives in Squaw Valley, Calif., said Atkins was a big part of the team’s success in the early ’80s. She remembers the tough training sessions ” running, lifting weights, and football-style drills.

She also remembers doing other cross-training, like tennis, volleyball and martial arts, which Atkins picked up when he served in Vietnam.

The team would take over hotel hallways and parking lots to do workouts, sometimes leaving their competitors a bit taken aback, McKinney said.

“Especially for the Europeans, to see us out there doing karate workouts in the parking lot,” she said.

But, as much as anything, Atkins motivated and encouraged the ski racers and fostered team spirit in a sport that focuses on individual achievement, McKinney said.

“He brought that camaraderie of team sports to skiing, which I think is helpful,” she said.

Atkins graduated from high school in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and went to college there, too. He thought he was going to be a parole officer when he was drafted into the Army to serve in Vietnam as a combat medic. That experience as a medic, plus his exposure to martial arts there, piqued his interest in the way medicine and sports intersect.

He studied physical therapy at the University of Utah and was trainer for its ski team. From there, he got a job with the U.S. Ski Team.

His accomplishments with the ski team are just as weighty as his accomplishments at Steadman-Hawkins and Howard Head, Atkins said.

“The sizzle is the ski team, and the steak is the rehab in Vail,” he said.

After a six-year stint with the ski team, he joined Dr. Richard Steadman at his Lake Tahoe clinic as an athletic trainer. When Steadman came to Vail, so did Atkins and Topper Hagerman, Atkins’ longtime colleague.

Atkins later switched over to the Howard Head Sports Medicine Center in Vail, where he served as co-director and president.

At Howard Head, trainers help people recover from surgeries and chronic injuries. On Friday in the clinic, people were on bicycles, on treadmills and lying on treatment tables.

In his post-ski team career, Atkins has still had to be a good motivator, encouraging people to work to recover.

His motivational method?

“You have to find out what their passion is,” Atkins said. “What’s the reason they want to do what they just told you they want to do?”

Atkins estimated that he and Hagerman have each treated 10,000 to 15,000 people since they came to Vail in 1984.

He said he’ll be thrilled to be in the Hall of Fame, in the company of ski legends such as Billy Kidd, Jimmie Heuga and, especially, the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who went on to become founding fathers of modern skiing.

The induction ceremony is Oct. 27 in Denver.

“I’ve been working since I was 11 years old and had a paper route,” Atkins said. “I’m the only guy in my family who ever graduated from college. I worked as a janitor at an all-night gas station working my way through college.

“So you can imagine this thing, we’re going to be in a tuxedo with all these cool people, it’s like, ‘Whoa. How did this happen?'”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or

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