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Fueling Team USA

May 10, 2016

The upcoming Sports Nutrition and Exercise Science Summit (SNESS) at Drexel University boasts an all-star lineup of nationally-renowned and accomplished speakers in the fields of nutrition, strength and conditioning and fitness, including one who is in the midst of a pretty remarkable year.

Shawn Hueglin, PhD, is a senior sport dietitian with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Based in California, Hueglin is working diligently to fuel several teams on the road to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Whether it’s men’s volley ball, women’s volley ball, men’s water polo, women’s water polo or women’s rugby, Hueglin is behind-the-scenes supporting Team USA’s athletes year-round, from training facilities in the Los Angeles, to various international competitions, right up to the culmination of all of their sweat, training and hard work – the Olympics. 

How did Hueglin transition from a career in academia as an assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach, to working with America’s most elite athletes? She credits a network she cultivated while earning her PhD to opening up the door to this once in a lifetime opportunity. 

“I didn’t get into nutrition until I was getting my PhD. At that time, I had the opportunity to work with Olympic-level athletes during the Salt Lake City Winter Games and to interact with individuals who supported those athletes,” she said. Yes, Hueglin has supported athletes competing in Olympic games before, both in Salt Lake City and London, as well as two Pan American Games. “That exposure and my athletic background in soccer, running and triathlons really solidified my interest in the sport aspect of nutrition, which had always been most intriguing to me. Even as I went through my clinical rotations, I knew the end product of what I eventually wanted to be involved in was going to be sports. There are times when you stop and think ‘What do I love most about my day?’ I realized that for me, it was the interactions with athletes and coaches.” 

Her experience in Salt Lake City helped her gain contacts at the Olympic-level, one of whom reached out to let her know a position was opening up at Chula Vista Training Center. “After being in academia for four to five years, I thought ‘Sure! Let’s try something different and get more into the applied world.’ It’s been fantastic ever since,” Hueglin said. “It’s just a fun job to go to every day.”

And each day is different. As I talk to Hueglin, she is at the men’s water polo training facility, making a homemade sports drink for the team and working hand-in-hand with the athletic trainer. “While I’m here, I’ll probably assess body composition and meet with a few athletes in between their sessions. Then I’ll go over to the volley ball training facility, which is about 10 miles away,” Hueglin noted that a typical day involves visits to one or two different facilities. Right now, a majority of athletes are returning from Europe, where they spend the winter season under professional contracts. “In the next week or two we’ll have close to 60 or 70 athletes back for full time training. To prepare, we’ve been ordering a ton of products, working on our training tables and recovery nutrition smoothies as well as training staff who will help throughout summer. This afternoon we’ll probably have a meeting about Rio preparation.”

Gearing up for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio is another big part of Hueglin’s job right now. “We’re in the middle of having a lot of meetings, calls and discussions with individual sports teams as well as USOC.” Each year as the event draws nearer, preparations increase working toward the Olympic year. And now, with the event only months away, getting good habits in place that the athletes can continue following in Rio is a focus. 

“We want to make sure everyone has good hydration habits, great fueling and recovery habits as well as sleep habits – everything that they need to maintain through the Games that they can do anywhere, whether they’re traveling in Japan, in Europe or in Rio. Sometimes the hardest thing is sticking to what you know,” she said. 

Hueglin’s profession is certainly unique to most sports dietitians, but not for the reasons you’d think. One aspect worth noting is the diversity within a team.  One team can have a member as young as 16-years-old and another in their early 30s. “Those individuals have different needs, experiences and histories. They have different tolerances; they adapt differently,” Hueglin said. “You might see this situation in pro sports, but you wouldn’t see that in a college team. As a dietitian working with one group all training together, the age difference calls for different strategies.”

But the USOC is uniquely equipped to effectively manage that challenge. Another unique aspect, according to Hueglin, is that she is a part of a team herself. The nutrition team consists of five full-time dietitians at different training centers. “There aren’t too many other locations that I know of that you have full time RDs all at a pretty senior level working together as a team. We collaborate together, bounce ideas off each other, brainstorm together - we’re working as a team to support each other without one person directing us.”

Those attending SNESS from May 16-17, 2016 will get a sneak peak of what is under the hood of one of the most prestigious sports performance programs in Hueglin’s presentation “Fueling Team USA: From Practice to Podium”. Hueglin hopes to paint an inside picture for attendees of the daily preparation of these athletes, and get everyone excited for Rio. Professionally, though, she hopes others learn from her experience that conversations can lead to jobs like hers. “You never know when you’re interacting with someone that might later open doors for you. Everyone you meet is a potential boss, especially in the small world of sports nutrition.”

Space is limited at the Sports Nutrition and Exercise Science summit. Register online to reserve your seat.

By Margaret DeGennaro ’12