Bobby Gragston ’15 is living the dream. The 33-year-old from Benton, Louisiana is a physical therapist and athletic trainer for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
Gragston learned about the top-ranked UCA physical therapy program from a colleague. He came to visit the campus, loved Conway and Arkansas and decided to become a Bear. It was a decision he has never regretted.
“I could tell how passionate my professors were about their job and the work they do, providing education and opportunities and experiences for us,” he said. “I love seeing people who are passionate about their work. They provided that foundational education in PT, but they also showed me professionalism and work ethic.”
These lessons followed Gragston throughout his career. Since graduating with his doctorate in physical therapy, he has worked at an orthopedic clinic in Little Rock, with the Little Rock Rangers semi-pro soccer team, the Denver Broncos and a professional soccer team in Tuscon, Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in athletic training.
“If somebody had told me I’d have the opportunity to work in the NFL, I would’ve told them they were crazy,” he said. “If somebody had told me I’d have the opportunity to work the Olympics, I would’ve told them they were crazy. But it happened.”
Gragston joined the USOPC in October 2020 and works with many athletes in several different sports.
“It is a dream job,” he said. “I can’t think of many other jobs that get better than this.”
Gragston is based at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, about seven miles south of San Diego. The 155-acre facility is home to USA Track & Field, USA Paralympic Track & Field, USA Rugby, USA Archery, USA Cycling’s Bicycle Motocross and USA Paralympic Tennis.
“It’s like a little Paralympic and Olympic village all the time,” Gragston said. “We have athletes that live on-site and others that live in the area and train here. People tend to think of Olympic athletes only every four years, but all those different sports have their national and world championships in between, so they’re always training.”
Gragston was in Toyko for the 2020 Summer Olympics (which were rescheduled to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). He came home briefly before going back for the Paralympic Games.
“I worked out of the high-performance center in Tokyo, an area where most of the athletes came and trained,” he said. “It was a big venture, like a little village, with track and field, a pool [and] softball fields where they mostly trained before they went into the [Olympic] Village to compete.
“What people don’t realize is it is such an honor to get to work with these athletes,” Gragston said. “Most of them are not typical professional athletes. A lot of them don’t have a lot of money, so they have second jobs, and they have to fit in their training.”
Precautionary measures due to the pandemic meant no interaction with the Japanese public. Gragston said organizers did a good job making the events as normal as they could given the restrictions.
During his time in Toyko, Gragston began his day at 5:30 a.m. He’d be at the high-performance center by 6 a.m.
“It was really all-hands-on-deck. We’d get the training room and the clinic ready for athlete care in the mornings, do treatments, cover training and take care of any emergencies that occurred on-site.”
Volunteers were limited due to the pandemic, so everyone helped wherever they were needed.
“I was helping with game operations and kitchen staff, and it was the same for most of the sports medicine staff,” he said. “If anybody needed help with anything, we jumped in and got our hands dirty.”
Though he did not get to see any of the competition in person, Gragston said he and his colleagues made the most of it.
“No fans, no spectators, so everything I saw came from the TV much like here, but it was live,” he said. “So we had fun little watch parties at the high-performance center.”
Gragston is slated to go to Beijing for the 2022 Paralympic Games in February and March.
“I pray it will be normal,” he said. “Things will still be a little restricted in Beijing, but the hope would be by the time we get to Paris in 2024, things will be much more normal.”
In the meantime, Gragston will continue to do what he does best: being attentive to those in his care.
“What I do in treating patients/athletes is something I do every day, and it’s easy to get caught up in that. But what I realized, especially at UCA, is for that time, that patient, that athlete — that’s everything to them. That’s their world at that moment. UCA did a great job ingraining that in me.”