By Karen Price | March 30, 2017, 10:30 a.m. (ET)
Chainey Umphrey celebrates his landing in the men's team competition at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games on July 22, 1996 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

 

As a gymnast and athlete, Chainey Umphrey grew up being acutely aware of his body and how it looked, moved and worked.

What he wasn’t prepared for was how his leg was going to appear after being in a cast all summer at the age of 15. The broken leg was his first major injury, and it looked so strange, all shriveled and hairy, that he didn’t even want to touch it. His doctor put his hand on Umphrey’s leg and started to move it around, however, and somehow that made him feel better.

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From that point on, although one day competing in the Olympic Games was still Umphrey’s No. 1 dream, becoming a doctor became No. 1a.

These days, Umphrey is Dr. Albert Chainey Umphrey MD, and he works in the spine and sports department at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center in California. TeamUSA.org caught up with him in honor of Thursday’s National Doctors’ Day.

“It was always something in the back of my mind,” Umphrey said of becoming a doctor. “Even before I went to UCLA (for undergraduate), part of picking UCLA was that I wanted to make sure I got to a spot that would put me in the best position to become a physician.”

Umphrey, 46, was on the U.S. national gymnastics team for eight years, went to four world championships and was a member of the 1996 men’s Olympic team that finished fifth.

After getting his undergrad in physiological science/pre-med at UCLA, he stayed on for medical school then did his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Colorado before switching to physical medicine and rehabilitation at Stanford. He has been with Kaiser Permanente in San Jose now for nine years.

“Initially I was doing orthopedic surgery, but I realized what I really loved about it was not being in the operating room all day long, but all the other stuff,” Umphrey said. “The hands-on stuff, getting to that point of understanding and being able to explain it to a patient the way it had been done for me.”

Umphrey has worked with everyone from patients who’ve suffered strokes and traumatic brain injuries to wounded veterans returning from the Middle East to young athletes to professional athletes. He also has special training dealing with ventilation management, particularly for patients with high spinal cord injuries, and specialized nerve studies.

It’s the variety, he said, that keeps it interesting.

“There are so many different parts to it, but it’s almost like doing the all-around,” he said. “Physical medicine is kind of like that.”

Looking back, Umphrey believes everything he did in his gymnastics career helped prepare him for being a physician. Not only did he have his own personal experiences with things such as mobility, training and injuries, but he also had time management skills and knew how to balance responsibilities.

“I was always studying, always pushing, you were just always focused,” he said. “It’s just all those little things you learn to do when you want to be really good at this one thing, but also really good at this other thing, too. You learn to put it all together. They were all life skills, all those things you had to do if you wanted to be a brilliant gymnast. How to deal with injuries, how much to rest, when do you push yourself beyond your fears. All those things, I deal with even now in my practice.”

When Umphrey stepped away from gymnastics, he remembers thinking that he’d never be completely away, that he’d always be involved, somehow. But then being a doctor happened, and having an active practice happened, and kids happened.

He and his wife, Christina, who is also a doctor, now have three children: son Jordan, 9, and daughters Amaya, 6, and Skye, 1.

However, when San Jose hosted the U.S. Olympic Team Trials last summer, Umphrey headed the delegation that was in charge of the medical care. It gave him an opportunity to reunite with his 1996 teammates as well as other Olympians and gymnastics elites.

“It’s amazing, after all those years you come right back,” he said. “The guys, we just kind of jumped back into it. It’s always good to see each other. We’ve all changed a little; some are a little thinner, some a little bigger, some have more hair, some have less, but that’s the beauty of life and seeing all that change. It’s nice.”

Most of Umphrey’s patients know of his gymnastics and Olympic background. He’d expect it from patients in their 40s and 50s, he said, but really it’s patients of all ages thanks in large part to YouTube.

“That really keeps it going,” he said. “It’s amazing how far-reaching gymnastics can be. I think it does transcend. We’re lucky in gymnastics that the spotlight really shines on us.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.