By Peter Dawson
Nine-time U.S. national diving champion Christina Loukas, 30, always thought preparing for two Olympic games would be the hardest challenge she would ever face.
Then she went to graduate school.
“Going to PT [physical therapy] school is harder than training for the Olympics,” Loukas said. “[The Games] are physical, but it’s only a set six hours of the day. But for PT school you’re there from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then you go home and have to study from 5 to 11 p.m. It just never ends.”
The 11-time NCAA All-American at Indiana University retired immediately after the 2012 Olympic Games – and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in physical therapy.
Her inspiration: overuse injuries that led to a torn labrum in her shoulder (that didn’t need surgery), as well as chronic pain in her back and hips.
“I was so interested with what was going on with my body and why it wouldn’t get better,” Loukas said. “It wasn’t until I was going through injuries through my career, where it was like I wanted to be someone who helped athletes to get to that next level [through physical therapy].”
To get into graduate school, she completed well over the required 100 observational hours with a licensed physical trainer in the DePaul University athletic department.
During her time there, she also had to retake physics, chemistry, biology and anatomy (complete with a cadaver lab dissection of a cat) because her previous credits had expired while she was training full-time for the 2012 Olympics.
Her persistence paid off. Next year she expects to earn her doctorate in physical therapy at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Unlike diving, PT school emphasizes working in a group, she said.
“You’re there for your teammates during competitions, but ultimately it comes down to you and your dive and how you finish,” said Christina Kouklakis, one of Loukas’ former Indiana University teammates. “For her, [PT school] is more of that team thing, which is something we [as divers] are not exactly used to.”
To ease the transition, Loukas drew on her synchronized diving experience working in perfect unison with a partner.
“I always enjoyed the mentality of that event [synchronized diving] because you’re doing it together,” Loukas said. “It’s all about communication. Working with patients is kind of the same…you have to build this relationship and trust with each other.”
As a student, Loukas’ physical abilities have been a blessing and a curse.
For example, she said she can withstand a lot of pain but knows most of her patients may have a lower threshold.
“When I was competing, you just kind of train through [injuries] and hope it holds up until the end of the competition,” Loukas said. “I guess I don’t know what’s normal and what isn’t in terms of pain tolerance. And that’s something I am going to have to figure out.”
After they retire, some athletes, such as wrestler Rulon Gardner, a 2000 Olympic gold medalist who ballooned from 287 to 425 pounds and appeared on “The Biggest Loser,” let themselves go.
Even with her busy class schedule, the 5-foot-4 scholar-athlete tries to works out at least an hour a day. She can still easily execute a set of 15 to 20 pike ups: she hangs by her hands from a pull-up bar and then brings her fingers up to her toes.
In one-on-one practical exercises in school, her limberness and strength make her an ideal partner.
“I think it is more of having her being flexible as an athlete,” said classmate Alison Olsen. “It is easier to learn things on her, because you don’t have to worry about limitations from that standpoint.”
Within the physical-therapy program, the Deerfield native is known for working well with others.
“She is just a really social, outgoing person, so I don’t think she has had any trouble with going from an individualized sport to this group thing,” Olsen added. “She’s also humble. The only time it [her athletic history] ever comes up is when we go out and somebody else brings it up.”
Loukas said she is content with this new chapter in her life, though she briefly got a Michael Phelps-type itch to attempt a comeback.
“Last year I tried diving a little bit, and going to PT school, and [thought] maybe I can come back for 2016 and do both,” Loukas said. “But at the end of the day it just wasn’t worth it to me, because I was ready to move on to the next part of my life.”