During her recent 13-hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympics (taking place in 2021), we caught up with the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team's (USWNT) team physician Monica Rho, MD — who, during her day job, is section chief of Musculoskeletal Medicine at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. Dr. Rho is part of the USWNT’s “high-performance team” (comprising sports medicine and sports science) and, as team physician coordinator, is responsible for the seamless transition of care for the players.
What does it feel like to be on the sidelines during the USWNT games?
It is a complete honor. Not only am I proud to personally represent the U.S., I love the fact that I am supporting the best female athletes in the world, in any way I can. I’ve always had a dream of working with female athletes, because it was a group that I thought was overlooked by medicine when I was growing up. I wanted to make sure that any talent and experience that I gained as a physician could go to support those who have traditionally been underserved. The opportunity to work with the most elite female athletes in the world is something that I do not take lightly and never take for granted. I am lucky to have this opportunity and I feel grateful every time I step on the field with them.
During a game, are you watching the tactics and strategies and goals, or are you focused on their movements and looking for potential injuries?
As a sports medicine clinician, it is important to stay focused on what’s going on in the game, but you have to train yourself to also watch what is happening “off the ball” as well. I have 11 athletes on the field that I’m responsible for: I need to make sure they all are doing well. Sometimes it can be a little limp or cramp after a slide tackle or contact with another player. The ball and play may move on, but you have to watch that player involved in the contact to see if her normal cadence and gait returns. It helps that I’ve watched thousands of hours of them training and playing. You get to understand how they typically move, so that when something looks off it becomes apparent quickly.
Were you a soccer fan before becoming team physician? Did you play soccer?
I have had tremendous respect for the USWNT ever since the 1999 World Cup team. I remember feeling empowered by the women on that team, who inspired so many young women at that time to not be defined by boundaries and go where you wanted to go. I was in college at that time, but recognize that I have been fortunate to grow up during a time when there were better opportunities for women to reach their maximal potential.
When I was in grade school and junior high, I played on our school soccer team. It was a co-ed team because a lot of the other schools in our division didn’t have girls' teams. Often, we played against all-boys teams. When I think back to our starting lineup, it was always a good mix of boys and girls. Playing on that team, I don’t ever remember the coach making a big deal about who was a girl and who was a boy; the best player — boy or girl — in each position got to start. In hindsight, I give a lot of credit to that coach for treating us that way. I got to be a starting midfielder on that team because I was better than some of the boys. You don’t forget that feeling as you grow up. It gives you the confidence to know that if you work hard and do your best, your gender does not have to limit you. It’s amazing to think that soccer at a young age gave me that perspective of the world. Seems like things have come a bit full circle for me and soccer.
In 2015, I remember watching the USWNT win the World Cup. I watched every minute of it like the rest of the country. It was exhilarating and fun to watch them dominate. I was in awe of their talent and, also, importantly, the impact they continued to make on the world. Even then, I couldn’t have imagined working with the team. Later that year, I was asked to join U.S. Soccer as a team physician for the men’s Paralympic team. After the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, I was asked to be the lead physician for the USWNT in 2017. I've been with them ever since, including the lead up to their championship in the 2019 World Cup. Now, I’m at the Olympics with them. It has been quite a journey with a lot of great memories and still time to form new ones!
As team physician, what is something you have to account for when athletes travel across the world? Does that travel change any part of their training or preparations?
With the Olympics taking place in Tokyo, we had to adjust to two inescapable factors: time and weather. Tokyo is 14 hours ahead of Chicago, so certainly jet lag can come into play. This was part of our planning to help the team quickly adapt. As for weather, Tokyo summers are famously hot and humid. Our sports scientist spent time before the Olympics putting players through a heat acclimatization program to help them make the transition to playing in those conditions.
What would you tell young women who are thinking about going into medicine?
Medicine is more than a job; it is a calling. This is important to know, because it requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice to be in medicine. Make sure this is something you truly want to do, and you are not doing it for the wrong reasons. Think about if you enjoy aspects of it and would still do it if you weren’t paid to do it. I know sometimes my life may seem very fun to some people looking in — and don’t get me wrong, some parts of it are extraordinary! But this is a life of service. You have to always be ready to be in service to your patients. Even if it's dinnertime, you are on vacation, or you are asleep in the middle of the night, your role as a doctor is not something you can turn off. It is an extremely rewarding life, but it is also an extremely demanding line of work.
About Monica Rho, MD
Monica Rho, MD, is Chief of Musculoskeletal Medicine at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. She is also Director of Residency Training and Director of Women’s Sports Medicine for the organization. Additionally, she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Musculoskeletal Medicine encompasses Sports Medicine, Spine Medicine, Women’s Musculoskeletal Health, Performing Arts Medicine, Women’s Sports Medicine and Adaptive Sports Medicine.
“I think the reason I do well in this environment is because it is physical medicine and rehabilitation at its core. Team-based care is what Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is all about — it’s not one person who’s a hero. When someone is going through his or her rehabilitation here, you can’t say, ‘Well, it’s the physical therapist who got the person walking.’ Or, ‘That nurse motivated him to walk.’ Or, ‘The occupational therapist taught him to put on his shoes.’ When we have victories, it’s a team win,” she said. “That’s how the soccer team’s medical team works too. I really like that because I was trained to be a physician in a team environment.”
The philosophy of the Musculoskeletal Medicine program is to integrate patients’ personal goals with expert clinical evaluation — and the least invasive treatment methods — to help them recover their greatest level of function (ability!). We help them achieve their goals in living an active, healthy lifestyle. Learn more about our Musculoskeletal Program.