She helped Notre Dame to four consecutive Final Four appearances, but sustained a devastating ACL injury in the NCAA Regional Final in 2014 when she was a senior. On the shelf for her would-be rookie campaign with the Indiana Fever, first-round draft pick Natalie Achonwa embarked on a rigorous rehabilitation program with sights set on a WNBA debut in 2015.
She replaced a banged-up Erlana Larkins in the starting lineup early in her rookie campaign, and paced all WNBA rookies with 10.2 points per game in June, earning the league’s rookie of the month award to begin 2015.
For Fever trainer Todd Champlin, Achonwa’s rookie of the month award was one of his most gratifying moments.
“She had arguably the best month of her three-year career then,” recalled Champlin, “and it was fun to see her get rewarded for the effort. It was good to see Kelly [Krauskopf] rewarded for the faith in drafting her despite the injury. Anytime somebody comes back from an injury, to play well and be healthy, that’s a good feeling for me.”
It was a moment of silent pride and gratification for Champlin, the Fever’s longtime trainer and one of its most dedicated staff. Recollection of Achonwa’s award resulted in a heart-driven, personal pump of the fist and a reminiscing smile as he recalled the process.
Like any injury situation requiring special attention, Champlin poured himself into the process.
“I was working with her when she came in during the offseason. In February, her leg was really weak, which was to be expected,” he recalled. “We did two-a-day workouts Mondays, Wednesdays, and if she was in town on Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we met once a day. Every workout was like two-and-a-half hours, we helped open up the place at St. Vincent’s,” he said, referring to St. Vincent Sports Performance, the athletic training and physical therapy agency who contracts his services with the Fever.
Achonwa was his offseason priority.
“She worked really hard. I worked hard with her and got about three hernias with it,” he joked. “We would run, just to get her going. She started jogging one day and to push her I said, ‘I’ll run with you.’ We did a series of ten 40-yard sprints. The first ten days, I could beat her, which pissed her off. The idea was she’d run hard for about three minutes, about the same segment she might run before the next timeout in a game. She would do five of those in between other exercises.”
Achonwa’s success is but one marker of achievement for the Buffalo, N.Y. native and former hockey player and trainer. In his sixth season as Indiana’s athletic training and sports performance specialist, Champlin has over 20 years in the profession counting a decade with professional and international hockey, and another decade managing his own private practice and sports therapy business.
Like any coach, athlete or front office staffer, he relishes in the team’s greatest moments. The Fever’s 2012 WNBA championship was an exclamation point on Champlin’s first season with the Fever. But the life of a trainer, and particularly for Champlin, is most frequently measured by the tiniest of obstacles, challenges and victories while maintaining players’ health – and perfecting that health to help athletes achieve their greatest performance.
By nature, trainers are frequently behind-the-scenes people. In the case of the soft-spoken Champlin, publicity and notoriety are irrelevant but for the successes of the athletes and team he serves.
His motivation? “It’s about helping others,” he said simply, reluctant even to accept an interview at first. “I’d always wanted to be in medicine. I didn’t think I could be a doctor, I didn’t know if I had that drive or even the intelligence to go to med school,” he quipped, “but I wanted to be in health care and helping people. This is one avenue of doing that.”
With the Fever, Champlin is usually the first to arrive and last to leave the team’s training site at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He meets players for a tissue massage or other various forms of treatment prior to practices, and again after workouts. His time is dictated by the needs of his patients, the Fever athletes.
On the road, he doubles as a coordinator of team travel, helping facilitate plane and bus travel, and the movement of 17 traveling individuals and team luggage. His hotel suite serves as a remote training room, welcoming players for exercise, massage, stretching or treatment to any of the nagging ailments that follow a pro basketball team while conducting non-stop games and practices from May through September, sometimes October.
Even from home with wife Victoria, Champlin is always on call – day and night available to serve the medical needs of Fever players, whether on the phone from home placing a prescription or consulting and setting up treatment schedules; or deep into an evening after a day of travel, trying to cajole an athlete’s sore muscles in order for maximum performance the following day.
During a routine travel day, with a flight often followed by practice and check-in at a new hotel, athletes routinely thank Todd for his time and effort, then proceed to their own families or evening entertainment. Todd, though, often accepts his next patient, rarely leaving his room.
Travel days have meant anywhere from 2 to 8 hours of treatment from the hotel training room.
So how does he spend his own time, away from the training room, in Indy or anyplace around the WNBA?
“If I have moments around the house I try to get caught up on yardwork,” he says. “But cooking is my relaxation,” says the father of three and grandfather of four. “I love to cook on the grill, I do it all year long. I’m from Buffalo, I don’t care if it’s the winter. I really enjoy it.”
Cooking on the grill offers time for reflection. But never during those opportunities years ago, did he ever anticipate the relationships he’d establish with some of the best women’s basketball players on the planet. Instead of perfecting athletes’ bodies for running and jumping and making a quick pivot in the lane, he was naturally accustomed to mending cuts, scrapes, breaks and bruises resulting from the physical, crashing, skating world on ice.
Hockey and basketball are different sports. Different injuries. Different points of stress on the body. He had worked with the Indiana and Indianapolis Ice franchises since 2000, the same time the Fever was established. He traveled with Team USA in the summer of 2011.
“Wow, who’d have thought? I never saw this coming,” he said, referring to his transition from the rink to the hardwood. “When I went back for my master’s in sports medicine, I never thought I’d be a women’s basketball trainer – especially for a league that didn’t exist then. It wasn’t even on my radar. I guess you never know what your future is going to be.”
The primary difference in training between the sports?
“Some of it’s just the difference between skating and running. With its running and jumping, basketball is more impactful on joints. In hockey, you see a lot of injuries between the hips and the trunk, or torso – and more cuts and bruises. A knee injury is a little easier to treat in hockey because you don’t have the constant impact of running and jumping; and twisting on ice can be easier than having to pivot after a rebound and throw a pass and sprint to the other end of the floor.”
“The same injury might be different to treat for a basketball player than a hockey player. That was part of my learning curve.”
From Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, to Shenise Johnson and Erlana Larkins, Champlin has dealt with a myriad of injuries and strains with the Fever. But it took conversation and consultation with other basketball trainers to build his base of confidence and experience with the new sport.
“I had to talk to people and think a little differently at first because it wasn’t what I was used to. Because of people like [Pacers trainer] Josh Corbeill, I was able to develop a comfort level. With his experience, I compared notes and asked questions. I still consult with people, but usually it’s not like that first year.”
That first year was a big year. The Fever had reached the playoffs in seven straight seasons prior, but championship hopes were often derailed with tough injuries to star players.
“One of my goals the first year was to make sure that No. 24 (Catchings) played all year, regular season and playoffs,” said Champlin. “My goal, not knowing how good we could be, was to make sure Briann was our point guard, coming off her own ACL injury, and have Tamika play the whole year.”
In fact, Catchings was the only player in the WNBA that year to start every regular season game (34), start every game of the Olympics (8) and start every game of the playoffs (10). January played in 31 games, starting in 26, and earned her first selection to the WNBA All-Defensive Team. The Fever stunned Minnesota to win the city’s first pro basketball title since 1973. Catchings was the Finals MVP.
Job well done. Even despite a 2013 season in which Champlin’s training room resembled a M*A*S*H unit, the Fever has never failed to reach the playoffs since Champlin’s arrival from hockey.
Whether basketball or hockey, Champlin has proven his mettle as a dedicated practitioner whose sole focus is making others around him better. Good health has meant good basketball for the Indiana Fever.