Physical therapist takes his skills to new level: The Olympics

Physical therapist takes his skills to new level: The Olympics

Since 1896, the United States has totaled more than 200 gold medals in men’s and women’s swimming. With the hard work, determination and passion of more than 100 elite athletes, the U.S. stands at the top of the board for the sport and continues to be a strong competitor in the Olympic Games.

An Olympic team is comprised not only of athletes; countless trainers, therapists and others work to ensure the competitors are in tip top shape. Many people dream of the chance to help. Being part of the Olympic Games is a once in a lifetime opportunity for those both in and out of the pool.

For Advocate Lutheran General Hospital physical therapist Dr. Brian Cunningham, PT/DPT, this dream of helping athletes became a reality 10 years ago.

“I had been a part of the USA Swimming Sports Medicine and Science and was invited to be a member of their high performance network,” Cunningham says. “If a professional athlete needed treatment, I am the physical therapist they would call here in Illinois.”

In 2006, Cunningham decided to test his skills and began the screening process at the USA Olympic Training Center. After a skills assessment and training sessions, he was chosen by the national governing body of the USA swimming organization to be a part of their elite medical team.

“I really thought, ‘Okay, I want to try and test my skills against the best in the country. Can I compete and take care of the highest level athletes?” he says. “If I can do that, I can take care of the community I am serving to the best of my ability.”

Cunningham is the only physical therapist among a seven-member medical staff, spending his days with the “paragons” of swimming. He works with athletes such as Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte and the Chicago hometown classic, Conor Dwyer.

On July 11, 2016, Cunningham will travel with the U.S.A swimming team to the training center in San Antonio, TX, where they will begin their final preparation for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

With more than 23 years of experience in the physical therapy field, 18 of which have been spent at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., Cunningham brings a wealth of knowledge to the sport. His specific focus on outpatient sports medicine allows him to be sure that athletic injuries are being treated with proper and adequate care.

“Swimmers can develop different musculoskeletal injuries which can impair their training and performance,” he says. “Such problems include shoulder injuries, rotator cuff issues and back pain, so it is crucial that we examine these before they become too severe.”

Cunningham was a swimmer himself who has had two shoulder surgeries over the course of his career. He humbly and firmly believes that through his training and practice with the staff and physicians at Lutheran General Hospital, he is able to provide the top medical care to serve an Olympic team.

“At Lutheran General Hospital, we leave our egos at the door, and we do whatever it takes to make the patient better. With a team approach, this results in more versatility across the board and an overall holistic approach to health care,” he says.

Furthering his own skill to better serve the community, Cunningham says he owes his success to co-workers, managers and the programs in which he is involved.

Although the success and increased performance of the swimmers is Cunningham’s main priority this summer, he is also excited to learn new things and take his expertise back to his patients at Lutheran General Hospital.


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  1. Christine Zaprzalka June 3, 2016 at 11:25 am · Reply

    Great Job Brian – Good Luck

  2. Ansel Tjin-A-Tam June 3, 2016 at 1:26 pm · Reply

    This is great! Best of luck.

  3. Aaron Shafter June 3, 2016 at 1:55 pm · Reply

    Way to go Brian!

  4. Brian worked with me after both of my knee replacements. He is an amazing therapist always finding new ways to get you working hard and getting the most out of your sessions. He taught me how to exercise and for that I am truly grateful. I was excited to see this article.

  5. Mary Derbick-Johnson June 3, 2016 at 7:51 pm · Reply

    Congratulations, Brian. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I was your patient in 2012 ( broken humerus with MS). You helped me a great deal by getting my arm in shape, and working on the parallel bars, addressing my MS problems. I wish you the best at the Olympics. The U.S. Team is very fortunate to have you. Best wishes, Brian.

  6. Christy Coughlin June 8, 2016 at 6:18 pm · Reply

    The US team is lucky to have you! Enjoy the experience.

  7. I have a swimming related shoulder injury and am fortunate to be able to see a physical therapist who has specialized knowledge in this area. My first visit I swam in the pool with Brian observing. Stoke issues were identified and explained using a video recording which is making stroke modification easier.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.