Jess Gruca ’11 and Joe Fiore ’01 in front of Fiore’s recently opened Accelerated Rehabilitation Center in Decatur.
As a high school junior, Jess Gruca ’11 participated in four sports, was hoping to play basketball at the university level, and thought she might like to be a lawyer. But during a game the Peotone, Ill., native calls “her best game ever” with 26 points, 13 steals and 10 rebounds, her life changed drastically. Gruca took a particularly hard hit. It didn’t hurt immediately, but by the end of her next practice she had ruptured the disc between her L4 and L5 vertebrae and, she would soon learn, she had little hope of participating in sports again.
There was talk of back surgery for disc replacement or perhaps fusion. Either would mean a significant change in the young woman’s life.
“Imagine being told at 16 years old: ‘No more sports. No running. No lifting weight over 20 pounds. No kids,’” Gruca remembers. She knew she didn’t want that, and neither did her mother.
“My mom called at least a dozen physical therapists,” Gruca says, “spending hours interviewing them on the phone.” One of these interviews turned up Joe Fiore ’01, then working in the Chicago area as a physical therapist and later at Millikin as a strength and conditioning coach. Gruca’s mom liked what Fiore had to say about what could be done for Jess with physical therapy. “Joe was the first person to give me hope,” Gruca says. Following her physician’s medical treatment and intense physical therapy provided by Fiore, Gruca was playing soccer by that spring.
Fiore became a mentor and role model to Gruca, and by her senior year at Peotone, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She wanted to do what Joe did. So, like Fiore, she came to Millikin’s exercise science and sport program, which put her on the path to giving hope and recovery to others – just what Fiore had done for her.
Citing the combination of classroom time with practical “hands on” experience for her athletic training major, Gruca credits her performance learning experience at Millikin with giving her the skills to prepare the way for her career.
“It’s why those students really need up-to-date equipment,” she says. “The same modalities and machines being used to teach are the ones I use now.”
Currently a personal trainer at the Decatur YMCA, Gruca specializes in working with people with injuries. She wants to give them the same hope and guidance provided to her by Fiore. Her face lights up when discussing a woman with a back injury who could do only one lunge when they first met and can now do dozens easily. Gruca is also excited about applying to physical therapy schools in August.
“You don’t have to be in pain forever,” she says. “Understanding all the little things that can affect one injury is so important. You have to work from the inside out, and athletic training confirmed that for me.”