Naresh Rao, DO, FAOASM, unexpectedly fell in love with water polo, which eventually led him to becoming the Olympic Team USA water polo physician for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Competitive tennis. Collegiate water polo. San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon. Collegiate water polo.
If that sounds like the resume of someone whose love for sports thoroughly pervades his personal life, it is. But that’s just one side of Naresh Rao, DO, FAOASM, a partner at Sports Medicine at Chelsea in New York, NY.
Rao, who is board certified in family medicine and osteopathic manipulative treatment, has both medicine and sports in his blood. His father was a well-known pediatrician who could often be found on the athletic field as a sideline doctor. But he was more than that.
“I just noted that he was more than just a doctor who would give you vaccinations,” Rao recalls. “He was more of a holistic doctor. He practiced more osteopathically than anything. I think that’s what compelled me to go into osteopathic medical school.”
Rao grew up in Amsterdam, NY, a small town of approximately 24,000 people. In his words, if you didn’t play sports, you were a nobody.
“You had a triple letter, especially in high school, or you were really wasting your time,” he recalls. “At least that’s the impression I had.”
Rao had a triple letter, competing in football, basketball, and tennis—the latter being the one he enjoyed the most. He also had his share of injuries, and recalls his father’s approach to the “healing” process as being, “Want to take a little breather and rest it; see if it gets better?”
“Now I know better than that,” Rao says.
And that’s reflected in the personal approach he and his colleagues employ at Sports Medicine at Chelsea. For example, one of his partners is a medical doctor who also practices traditional Chinese medicine.
“We carry all of our experiences into the exam room or to the sidelines, wherever our office takes us,” Rao explains. “We certainly draw on personal experiences.”
Rao served as Olympic Team USA water polo physician for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but his love for the water and the sport came along by accident.
“I had never played water polo,” he recalls. “I had no idea what it was.”
But he had to pass a swimming test to graduate Colgate University. So he began playing water polo with his roommates as a way to get ready for the test, and wound up falling in love with the sport. And when he did his sports medicine fellowship in San Diego, he found out just how popular water polo is.
“California is the mecca of water polo,” he says. “It’s bigger than football in some towns, at least in high school.”
Rao was approached by a fellow osteopathic physician, who was the head team physician for USA water polo, to help out. When she stepped down, he stepped up. And he’s been credited by the athletes as keeping the team both medically and emotionally well-conditioned.
“As an osteopathic physician, it’s more than just about bumps and bruises and ankle sprains,” Rao says. “There’s more to the human athlete. There are so many aspects of athletics that go well beyond the physical.”
And that’s one of Rao’s missions—to change people’s perception of sports medicine. It’s much more, he says, than ankle sprains ad rotator cuff surgery.
“Ninety percent of sports medicine is not operative.”
And that’s what Rao took away from his experience last summer in Rio. He wasn’t just being there in case of an emergency, or doling out medication if someone caught a cold.
“There are plenty of common medical ailments to deal with,” Rao says. “But I think it was just the fact that I felt like I was contributing to something greater than myself. I think that's why most physicians do what they do—that they’re making a difference. I certainly was part of the team.”
Spreading the word
Rao recently published a book on sports performance for the everyday athlete, Step Up Your Game: The Revolutionary Program Elite Athletes Use to Increase Performance and Achieve Total Health (Sports Publishing, February 2016).
“The book was something that I think just needed to be written,” Rao says. “I’ve really been a student of how we can empower people; empower anybody who wants to perform at their highest.”
It started with making notes during his train ride to work in Manhattan, and turned into a passion. Rao drew from every aspect of everyone who had ever influenced him.
“It really embodies the osteopathic philosophy,” he says of the book. “You can’t do anything alone. You need to bring in your team. Even if you’re not an athlete, it’s really a way anyone can perform better in life. And while it’s not written for little kids, I think once they get into the seventh than eighth grade they certainly can understand it.”
Rao conveys that message as a swimming and water polo coach for the New York Athletic Club’s Saturday Morning Program. He donates his time often to educate children on health and wellness, and has a strong belief in giving back to the community.
“Saturday Morning Program kids have actually gone to the Olympics,” Rao says. “It’s the ability to impart all the wisdom that people have imparted on me, and to influence people at a young age, and help them reach their potential.”
Making an impact
Rao says he and his partners share the same philosophy and approach to the work they do. They all agree that even if they didn’t have to worry about money, they’d still be doing what they do.
“It’s such a joy to take care of people,” he says. “I really can’t imagine not doing this every day. That’s the whole reason I got into primary care sports medicine.”