EDMONTON, AB – It took a leap of faith, but Lisa Swallow is finally doing the job she always dreamed of.
Lisa is the Edmonton Elks assistant Athletic Therapist and Physical Therapist, a role she has been in since the 2021 season. It took a last minute hail mary to get the job — her application came within 30 minutes of the deadline — but it was a risk she is happy she took.
“On the last hour of the application, I sent in my resume,” Swallow said. “I got a call from Brian Cheeseman and from Dr. (Dhiren) Naidu, and we had a couple of chats over the phone. Eventually they offered me a position to come out here as a seasonal therapist for the 2021 shortened season.”
That word ‘seasonal’ is where all the risk came in. Lisa had been an accomplished physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in the industry and was the owner of her own clinic for over a decade. Still, she always had a passion for sports which led her to years of volunteer work with Football Saskatchewan and the Regina Thunder of the CJFL.
The decision to follow the path of uncertainty on her way to a dream job was one not taken lightly, but it is one that has been immensely rewarding.
“I was doing more of the treatment that I kind of wanted to do as far as like hands on manual therapy, exercise prescription, kind of combining it all together and still volunteering in sport, but always kind of in the back of my mind wanting to work in sport professionally,” Swallow said.
“It was awesome because I got to finally meld the two worlds that I was volunteering in and working professionally in. I was able to do clinical work here, but also have the field experience of being out of practice and games and all of that fun stuff. So that’s kind of the road, I took the long way.”
THE LONG ROAD
The road to the Canadian Football League was a long one for Swallow, who grew up a fan of the league and was a season ticket holder in Saskatchewan with her family for years. However, in an alternate timeline, things could have worked out differently for Swallow. In the mid 2000’s the possibility of working in the CFL presented itself to Lisa, but it was an opportunity that she wasn’t sure herself, or the league was ready for.
“When I was working junior football, I had an opportunity,” she said. “At one point, I re-certified my first responder with the head therapist of the Roughriders at the time, and after the course was done, he said ‘Lisa, if you’re interested in helping out at training camp, just give me a call,’ and I never called him.”
“I didn’t know if that was an environment that I would be welcomed in as a female,” she added. “I didn’t have the confidence to call them and say, yeah, I want to do this, and I always regretted that. When this opportunity came up, I was like, well I’ll apply. When I got the offer I thought ‘here’s my chance to make up for something that I didn’t try to do previously, just because I didn’t feel confident enough to be in that environment’. Once I got here, I realized it’s really just like any other work environment.”
Swallow says she feels the stigma has changed around women in sports since the time she was unable to pick up the phone to now. The amount of women working across the league on the football operations side of the job has grown immensely over the last two decades and she’s happy to be one of them.
Swallow has been an incredible fit inside the Elks locker room, and it has led to her seasonal role becoming a full-time career. She made her leap of faith and is working in a job that can be as difficult as it is rewarding. Still, its hard to beat the highs that come with working in sports. The Elks therapist credits the relationships you are able to build in sports as both the most rewarding and most challenging parts of the job.
“I spend a lot of time with guys who are on a six-game injured list and so they’re not able to practice, they’re not able to play and participate as fully as they’d like to be,” Swallow said. “You do get to spend a lot of one-on-one time with them, get to know who they are as people, and you get to kind of ride the waves with them of their ups and their downs and be there when they’re having successes and help to try to encourage them along when they’re feeling a bit low.”
The relationships built in the locker room take time to create, but are aided by a shared goal and a shared struggle. As one of a few women in the Elks locker room, there is a different type of relationship that is built. It’s not quite being ‘one of the boys’ but the respect factor of proving you can do the job and you have a players best interest in mind goes a long way… along with a little trash talk.
“The challenging part, I think, is trying to earn the respect of the players as well as earn their trust, and same with coaching staff and management,” Swallow said. “I think that’s maybe one of the more challenging parts and that’s probably where there’s still a little bit of that maybe stigma related to females. You don’t want to appear like you’re too soft and too caring, and I don’t think that I am that, I probably trash talk the players more than anybody because I know I can get away with it.
“It’s a challenge to find that balance of having good professional boundaries and earning that respect and trust, but that’s a good challenge to have in a way.”
FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
On National Girls and Women in Sports Day, Lisa had one piece of advice for women looking to follow her path into professional sports.
“I think just go for it,” she said. “I let an opportunity slide because I personally wasn’t ready or didn’t have the confidence in myself. Luckily, that opportunity came back around for me, but even with the passage of time, I still came in (to the Elks) with wondering, is this going to be a good fit? Is this going to work? There will always be those questions, so if the opportunity comes, just go for it and don’t be afraid to ask for the opportunity.”