Going for the gold

One doctor is helping the US Olympic Team perform at its peak in Tokyo

Naresh Rao, DO, spends a lot of time treating athletes at his practice in New York City, but this year, he gets to do something very special: treat Olympic athletes. He’ll travel to Tokyo as part of a larger medical team to help keep US athletes in optimum condition as they try to achieve their Olympic dreams. For Rao, it all started with a sports medicine course in medical school, which sparked his interest in applying his medical knowledge to the sport world. After a fellowship in sports medicine that saw him treat Division I college athletes and professional athletes, he followed his dream to the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, where he was the team physician for the women’s and men’s water polo teams. Now, he returns to the Olympics in Tokyo as the team physician for the men’s water polo team.

Medical Economics spoke to Rao about what being on the Olympic medical team is like and what it means to be part of something that the entire world will tune in to watch.

[Editor’s note: The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity]

Medical Economics: What will your daily responsibilities be during the games?

Naresh Rao: The structure of the Olympic medical team is the ability to look at this from a hierarchy. We have our chief medical officer, Dr. John Finnoff, and he's the one that's from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and then their staffs that are selected to be part of that team. But then every individual sport that's represented in the Olympics has their own designated medical doctor, and my field is in water sports, and water polo in particular, and this time, I’m looking at men's water polo. For five years now, the ability to focus on that team and create an atmosphere where our athletes and our staff will be comfortable is important. So the daily duties are for me to be primarily be there for men's water polo for Tokyo, as opposed to in Rio, where I was the medical doctor for both the women's and the men's teams.

Medical Economics: Besides being on the world stage, is there anything different about caring for athletes in the Olympics compared to treating athletes in your practice?

Rao: Well, I think the world stage certainly is a matter of perspective. And whenever I have a patient come into my office, I treat everyone like an Olympian. My motto is that I want to help people perform at their best in life without incurring harm. And I think that's what medicine really is all about. And when I see somebody who wants to do well, it lends itself to be able to draw on the vast array of sports performance tools that we have available, but it also translates well to the everyday athlete. It led to the ability for me to bring that to my primary care sports medicine office and bring that osteopathic medicine philosophy to it. If we were to look at the ability to scale, how do we scale the ability to empower. So that's where we get into technology. And that's what we get into interactive digital health. And that's what led me to, to start another company, to be able to bring these ideals, these ways that we treat elite athletes, but make it for everyday athletes, in particular to youth athletes. Because if we can get them to the core education, and interaction and get them talking about the way we can perform well in life, well, I think we can do more than just help them get to the Olympics.

Medical Economics: Do you get to attend the opening or closing ceremonies?

Rao: It depends, especially this this go around, as there are a lot of restrictions in Tokyo with COVID. In Rio, there were two coaches that were selected to be part of the walk with the team. And the closing ceremonies, they do allow medical staff to walk in the closing ceremonies. And if there's an exception that you can go with the opening, but with COVID protocols, I think it's not necessarily going to be a high priority for staff to be there, to make sure everyone's safe for the games.

Medical Economics: Are there any other perks? Like just fun moments? Or is it just work all the time while you're there?

Rao: Well, I think work is a state of mind, and I certainly don't see it as work. I see it as the ability to interact with other doctors, medical staff, which includes physical therapists, athletic trainers, chiropractors, and massage therapists. We are able to collectively learn from each other. And if I don't know something, we're able to, to say, ‘Hey, doc, can you help me out on this one patient?’ That's what happens is, we collaborate, and that collaboration is really what's most fun. The other perks usually would be about being able to see a host country and understand the culture, but Tokyo is going to be a little different, because we all have to maintain our bubbles. And we're not necessarily going to be able to go out and do things, because it is important to make sure that the safety of the game is at its highest. But with that said, there's plenty of digital ways to be able to absorb the culture. The other perks are that, obviously it's an honor, and then it works well with when I go out and speak. So public speaking, to be able to bring the message and bring amazing stories these past five years to see how well these athletes have endured, have been resilient, and have gone through trials and tribulations, that I think all of us can learn from in terms of valuable life lessons. So to me, to be able to give back from what I've been given is really what it's all about.

Medical Economics: How excited are you to get to these games?

Rao: The excitement is in the air and when I look at the journey -- we talk about things in terms of quadrennial for years -- so for this to be an extra year makes it extra special, sort of like the 27th mile of a marathon, is what it feels like, even though we've already crossed the finish line in our minds. And it's important to have a sense of accomplishment and the excitement, to have chemistry with a team to know that we've been through some really amazing and terrific times, to be able to say that we've gotten through it together. And to be able to be on the world stage, like you said, is it's just a feeling that I'll never forget and I thank my family, for one. You know, it always comes back to you to the core of who we are, and if you can't have your foundation, it's very tough to get to this level. So stick to the foundations, have great mentorship, have a great family life and work balance. Because as we know in medicine, burnout is very, easy to go through and is very easy to be subject to, especially in our field. But if we're able to understand how we do it for Olympians, well guess what? It's OK to be able to use those tools for ourselves as well.