McClarey's mind trained to help kids for over 30 years, appreciated by many for role as Mexico athletic trainer

By Jeremy Jacob, Sports Editor
Posted 3/18/23

Joanna McClarey has been the constant on Mexico sidelines for more than a decade.

For about 18 years, McClarey has been the school’s athletic trainer as part of a career that is about to …

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McClarey's mind trained to help kids for over 30 years, appreciated by many for role as Mexico athletic trainer


Joanna McClarey has been the constant on Mexico sidelines for more than a decade.

For about 18 years, McClarey has been the school’s athletic trainer as part of a career that is about to reach 32 years in May. During that time, she has helped countless athletes at several schools, making sure the kids are all physically ready for competition, but McClarey emphasizes the mental aspect of athletic training.

March is National Athletic Training Month so it is a good time as any to become familiar with the ins and outs of the profession. For starters, McClarey said much knowledge is required for an athletic trainer at any level — such as kinesiology (study of physical activity and human movement), the manual muscle testing, treatment skills, electrical muscle stimulation, and diet and nutrition — as she said she has a Master’s degree from Indiana University after earning her undergraduate degree from Grinnell College in Iowa. One of McClarey’s latest ventures is a sports medicine course she offers at the high school, hoping to pass valuable knowledge to athletes.

“I mainly want to impart some education to these kids to understand verbiage that is used and understand body parts because one of my pet peeves is when an individual goes in to a doctor and the doctor says you have an ankle sprain,” McClarey said. “When they come back to me, that tells me nothing. Is it a lateral sprain? Is it involving the anterior talofibular (ligament)? Is it considered a high sprain? What is it? They don’t ask. This is your body so you need to ask specifically what is going on. That can tell us a whole bunch of things.”

McClarey said this is the first year she has tried something like this as she remembers doing what she called a “bumps and bruises” clinic when she first arrived in Mexico with the school nurse at the time. This was a seminar period after school meant to communicate with coaches and parents about kids’ injuries.

What, on the surface, seems like a similar injury can mean vastly different things and warrant varying types of treatment. Going back to the ankle sprain, McClarey said high ankle sprains require more immobilization to prevent the injury worsening into one that needs weeks of recovery or possibly surgery when a few days of rest could have been sufficient. She said the rotator cuff at the shoulder has four muscles that can also lead to different forms of treatment, and of course, concussions should lead to the most caution.

McClarey has had better than a front-row seat to events that emanated emotion like the boys district wrestling meet Mexico hosted a few weeks ago. When everything seems to be on the line, she understands athletes want to be there to help their team. So this is where psychology comes into play.

“I try some psychology because I talk to them in terms of their language: Are you going to be able to play at 100 percent? If you don’t play at 100 percent, you’re going to get upset at yourself, and if you get upset at yourself, you potentially can also get upset at your teammates so the whole thing kind of snowballs,” she said.

This approach jibes with her personality as McClarey said she was like this early in her career as well. After graduating and becoming certified in 1991. and before shouldering a schedule at Audrain Medical Center in the morning and Mexico High School in the evening, she said she worked at several inner city Chicago schools such as Kenwood Academy and Simeon. Her first day at one Chicago school “sums up” her personality.

McClarey said she walked into a coach’s office while he was chatting with three members of his staff. The atmosphere of the room changed as soon as she stepped in.

“Everybody stopped talking. Silence,” McClarey said. “I introduced myself, shook the gentleman’s hand, and I said ‘I’ll meet you out on the field.’ Went out to the field, one of the assistant coaches came up to me, ‘You are the first women who has ever walked into this office. His wife doesn’t even come into the office.’ He and I got along great after that. I’ll be there in your face.”

Her relationships with coaches extends to the Mexico athletics department as boys basketball head coach Darren Pappas, football head coach Steve Haag and athletic director Brandon Schafer all see her value to the department and especially to the kids.

“Joanna really cares about the student-athletes she works with and is always willing to go the extra mile to ensure the athletes are performing to their highest abilities,” Pappas said. “She does a great job of developing care plans for injured athletes to get them back on the playing fields as soon as possible. Joanna also teaches student athletes about proper nutrition to ensure peak performance when competing.”

“Joanna has a great dedication to making sure our athletes are safe and on the right track to get healthy and back into the game,” Haag said. “She is a great asset to our district and my team's ability to compete on the field.”

“Joanna is willing to go above and beyond to ensure that our students are safe when competing at the highest level,” Schafer said. “She is continuously looking for ways to give our students an advantage in finding ways to recover from injuries and to prevent injuries. She takes our students' best interest to heart and has been a vital asset to the Mexico High School athletic department for the last 10+ years.”

McClarey cares so much about the kids partly because of why she became interested in athletic training in the first place. While at Wasilla High School, she said she was a competitive swimmer, and eventually at Grinnell, she developed some pain from the pool.

McClarey initially studied to be a teacher in French and then math, until she said she went into linear algebra and realized “I have no idea what this is.” Instead, she wanted to learn more about her injuries and the duties of the person treating her.

“I’d have a lot of shoulder pain and back pain so I spent a lot of time visiting with my athletic trainer at my undergrad getting ice bags,” McClarey said. “I started thinking I really like this, so I looked at what I needed to do.”

McClarey has been around long enough to encounter parents she remembers treating when they were athletes, causing her to involuntarily chuckle and smile. Her son, Patrick, also played tennis and soccer at the high school during her tenure, and McClarey jokes he was one of the more headstrong athletes she treated.

She said she isn’t sure now much longer she’ll be an athletic trainer as, by her own admission, the wear and tear from standing on sidelines and being out in cold weather over the years means “I don’t bounce back as quick” after events. However long she has, she said she wants Mexico and its athletes to be in a good medical state, especially with the limited local health care options.

McClarey said having an athletic trainer on duty while also having things such as a club rather than a sports medicine class, a more functional training room and a taping table instead of a treatment table to “save a person’s back” would help the kids.

“If we can figure out ways to keep our kids a little bit healthier, a little bit safer, teach them how to eat right, train right, warm up well, how to prevent some things from happening, that’s my goal,” McClarey said. “I’d like to see these kids not have as many problems in the future as some people do.”