AT UK grad says first Volleyball national title was ‘All worth it’

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

Katy still isn’t sure if she should’ve taken the scissors.

After all, no one else seemed to take any. Then again, who else would’ve used them? They say “National Champions 2020” on them for crying out loud.

That means there’s only so many times anyone could use them — and only so many folks who can.

Katy just happens to be one of those worthy few, as she is the Senior Athletic Trainer for UK Athletics. One of her responsibilities is working with the volleyball squad — the team that, last month, won its first national championship. And, as per tradition, the players cut down the net in celebration, and they used special “National Championship” scissors to do so.

A pair of those scissors can now be found, alongside a piece of that net, on Katy Poole’s desk back in Lexington, Ky. Soon there will be a huge national championship ring sitting there, too.

So yes, Katy still isn’t sure if she should’ve taken the scissors. But who will miss them, right?

“They had like 25 pairs of them, and I just assumed everyone had taken a pair,” said the 2013 UK graduate (M.S., Athletic Training) who grew up playing volleyball her entire life and attended volleyball powerhouse Penn State as an undergrad. “Then I get back and I realize no one else had them. I don’t know. But here they are!” she laughed.

And there they will stay. We caught up with Katy to see what brought her to UK, what makes UK volleyball and athletic training so successful, and what it was like to become a national champion during a pandemic, among other topics.

Here’s 5 questions with … Senior Athletic Trainer for UK Athletics (and UK graduate) Katy Poole, MS, ATC, LAT:

What led you to athletic training?

For me, it was definitely a combination of an interest in sports — I knew, somehow, I wanted to be involved in sports — but I also had an interest in medicine, so it was sort of a natural blend between the two. And then I feel like most athletic trainers sustained some sort of you know, injury in high school — I was always hurt in high school. I tore my ACL, had a shoulder injury.

So going through that process and working with athletic trainers in my high school sort of solidified that that was what my interest was in, and I had a chance to be an athletic training student at Penn State and really liked it.

What brought you to UK for grad school?

So, from an academic standpoint I knew that I wanted to get my master’s in Athletic Training. I am self-proclaimed, a little bit of a nerd. So I knew that I wanted to apply to the top programs — Virginia and Kentucky.

I came on my interview here and loved it, and my passion for athletic training is, I would say, almost matched by my passion for volleyball. It's been just a part of who I am ever since I was a little kid, and I was involved with Penn State's program growing up.

I talked to some of the volleyball staff at Penn State, and they were like, ‘You know, you should go work for (UK Head Volleyball Coach) Craig Skinner and go to Kentucky. That's a really good place to be.’

Then, when I came on my interview, this place felt a lot more like home than I thought.

That was 10 years ago. My first two seasons, I was a graduate assistant in the athletic training program. It's been fun, these last 10 years, to be a part of that growth and to have contributed in any way that I can to building something so cool.

We sort-of spoke it into existence, as we say.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more confident group of athletes. From your perspective, was it like that for the staff, too? And did you notice this confidence as well?

I think physically, no doubt. I was right there with them in terms of both their physicality and in capability — 100 percent, we can do this. I always felt very, very confident that this was an obtainable goal, but man, the players and seniors especially led the charge.

They really did talk about it, not in a cocky way, but just in a matter-of-fact way. One of the girls printed out these cards for us and handed them out in January (the card says, “Win a National Championship. UK VB 2021.”)

Everyone's had one of these since January, and you know, in March, I was helping another one of the girls schedule her COVID vaccine, and we were trying to count ahead and look at the weeks of when we would be on the road, and all that sort of stuff and she just so casually responded to me in a text and said, ‘Well, it's gonna have to wait until after we win the natty’ — or, the national championship.

So I was there with them, but they were really the ones that lead the charge.

What were some of the things you had to deal with during the season, in terms of injuries or rehab situations — and did COVID make this title that much more rewarding?

The cool thing about athletic training is that it's always different. It's always going to throw something different at you, which is what I really like about it.

Over the years, what is helpful, is that you learn something from each of those situations that make you better equipped to handle the next time. Like in fall of 2019 one of the girls has a pretty gnarly finger injury — that's not an area that we'd had a ton of injuries in before.

She was blocking and she just took a ball off the pinky and there are a lot of little bones and things in the fingers that need to be helped. Five months later, a really, really similar situation happened with one of the other girls, and it was crazy, but you learn stuff from every situation that helps prepare you.

This past year I don't know an athletic trainer in the country that could have been prepared for all the stuff that got thrown at us with the pandemic. First and you're trying to take care of yourself, so that you can take care of your team.

You’re doing your best to educate your team and follow protocols and balance enforcing those protocols and still doing the rest of your job responsibilities.

It does make all of this even more special.

There were definitely moments — even if they wouldn't admit it — where every athletic trainer was like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we trying to play sports?’ It was just a fleeting thought you know, but there were definitely moments. I mean, we’re in a global pandemic.

But once you play your first match and you see all the extra reward that comes with sport in general, and the camaraderie and teamwork, and all that stuff, and then to have it end the way that we did.

That's why we did it. That's exactly what made it all worth it, and it would have been worth it regardless of the outcome — but yeah, it sure was special.

We knew as we got further and further into the Tournament, some of the girls would look at Snapchat or something. They’d see a ton of people at Tin Roof watching us, or we started getting videos from people at Drake's where nobody could get a table. So we knew that heads were starting to turn. We could feel that support.

Then, the day after the tournament, when we came home, we turned into the Memorial Coliseum parking lot and (Coach Skinner) said, ‘Man, I haven't seen the parking lot this full sense pre-COVID.’ And it didn't even occur to me. I was like, ‘Yeah what's going on?’

Coach looked at us and he was like, ‘They're here for us.’

I hadn't cried up to that point yet, but we walked onto the balcony at Memorial, and saw the people in there and I was a mess — just burst into tears right away.

We realized we really did make a difference. There were really a lot of people that were following along and watching.

Just the other day, one of the athletes and I were at a doctor's appointment and somebody came up to us and said, ‘You know, you guys were what a lot of people really needed. The fanbase really needed that.’

It was one for the books. This year has been very hard; we have asked so much of our team and staff to sacrifice, you know not being normal college students and whatnot. It took a toll on everybody I think physically, mentally and emotionally.

It definitely was one of the harder years, but on the other hand, how could it not be one of the best years? It was an awesome group — a great team, great staff and I’m so glad that it worked out the way that it did.

What do you tell those who are trying to decide to come to UK, either for athletics, or for the AT program?

You're going to get a really, really good academic experience. It’s going to be research-oriented but it's going to pair really well with an unbelievable clinical experience.

Kentucky does some of the best that that I've seen in the country in terms of really caring about both things. I’ve interviewed at schools where they have big-time sport programs and they don't worry so much about the academic piece of it.

And, I've interviewed at really good academic institutions who don’t necessarily support their athletics in the same way. I think Kentucky does one of the best jobs in the country of pairing those two things that are really, really important.

But I am so relationship-driven. I just really love the family atmosphere of it all. It’s what got me in the beginning and has kept me here this whole time, both in the athletic department and academically.

You know, after we won the championship, all of the academic people and athletic training people reached out and were tweeting at me. This sport has really turned into something.

We always say, if you come watch us one time, you won't have to convince people to come back. I mean, everyone just feels a part of it, and everybody is a part of it.

It's genuine and it’s a thrill.