By STEPHEN MAZZONE
Phil Genther has been coaching track and cross country for 36 years, including 18 at his current post directing the girls’ programs at Villa Maria Academy, a tiny catholic school in Malvern, Pennsylvania. During his nearly 40-year career, Genther has seen his share of athletes suffer injuries and other unfortunate occurrences that are associated with running.
At the last two PIAA Cross-Country Championships, he witnessed a pair of athletes get hit by deer while out on the trails.
But there is nothing that compares to what the 60-year-old coach had to experience back on Sept. 13 with one of his top varsity runners. It’s something that very few coaches have ever had to witness during their tenures.
Genther was down at the school’s track, directing his squad through a rare tempo run, when junior Blair Allan, a tall, slender harrier collapsed during the cool-down period.
“We were just about done with our workout and she stopped, leaned over and fell to the ground and went into cardiac arrest,” he said.
Luckily for Allan, fate was on her side that day. The chain of events that would happen in the next few minutes saved her life. The normally-active playing fields at Villa Maria had just a jayvee field hockey game being played on the field inside the track. Two assistant athletic directors happened to be at the game, manning the scoreboard. A trainer was also at the field with an AED (automated external defibrillator) machine.
“There was also a girl that was playing for the first time that was cut from the (varsity) team the day before and her mother was there watching who happened to be an emergency room nurse,” Genther said.
That mother, situated about 30 yards from 16-year-old Allan, rushed over to the fallen teenager and immediately administered CPR with the assistance of the other staff. A 9-1-1 call was placed and within 10 minutes Allan was transported to nearby Paoli Hospital.
During that short span, twice her heart stopped and the AED machine was needed.
“Once in the hospital, it was kind of touch-and-go,” Genther said. “They pretty much had to put her into a coma to find out what it was. They were working on her and still couldn’t figure out what it was. They brought her upstairs and two hours later she had to be transported to the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and it was the same thing, they didn’t know what it was.”
It was until that Friday night that Allan opened her eyes for the first time and the following Tuesday that she showed some signs of alertness. She has progressively gotten better since the incident and, right now, the prognosis is positive for a full recovery.
Thanks to a little fate and the quick actions of a few people.
“The ambulance was there in no time, but I am not sure if she would have made it if the hospital wasn’t so close,” Genther said. “I just know we are lucky that all those people were there and it worked like clockwork.”
The Villa Maria coach expects that his multi-talented runner, who also plays for the school’s basketball team and is decorated in equestrian, will be competing again in the not-so-distant future.
“The game plan is she is not going to run now. We are actually going to make her an assistant coach so that she can still be with the team,” he said. “She is going to play basketball. She is more than likely going to have an implant (pacemaker). I am sure she will be back. She is the kind of kid that will bounce back.”
Genther believes he learned a valuable lesson from the near-fatal consequences that transpired less than two weeks ago. It’s a lesson that he feels other coaches should take note of during practices and meets with their athletes.
You never know what can happen when the body is put under any kind of stress. It doesn’t matter the physical condition of an athlete. According to Genther, Allan was in “phenomenal shape.”
This was something that caught him, and all those involved, completely by surprise.
“It was a wake-up call,” he said. “We are all very fortunate.”
The point that Genther wants to express to his fellow coaches out there is to make sure that proper precautions are taken to insure the safety of their athletes. In the case with meets, plenty of medical personnel should be on hand. A simple rule: the more athletes, the more medical personnel.
Genther indicated that sometimes he may go to a meet and only athletic trainers are present.
“A lot of people are nonchalant about this,” he said.
Genther also stressed the importance of the AED machine. Villa Maria bought six machines about five years ago because of the growing number of fatalities nationwide of high school athletes.
The AED is a device that sends an electrical shock to the heart to restore the natural heart rhythm to the victim. The machine is easy to use with step-by-step instructions that are dictated to the administrator.
“It’s good to know CPR, but these machines talk you right through it,” Genther said. “It talks you through the entire thing and does it very quickly because it knows how important time is. You just open it up and it tells you exactly what to do.”
Unlike most sports, cross country is not contained. Runners of varying abilities are out on trails and are often not visible to their coaches or spectators.
Based on what happened to Allan, Genther had changed his way of thinking during practices.
“We have kids that run a couple of preserves, but what happens to that last kid. She usually runs by herself,” he said. “We are now saying that no kids run by themselves. If someone has to run back to run with her, that’s what we do.”
Genther has also purchased a few cell phone sleeves for his runners. When his athletes are away from the school on a training run, he wants to make sure that phones are available in case of emergency.
“In cross-country, you are not normally on the track,” he said. “What would have happened (Sept. 13) if they were out on the trails and something happened?”
Again, Genther hopes that other coaches will be more conscience of the possible dangers that can occur with their athletes. It doesn’t matter the sport.
“I have never experienced anything like this. One time is enough,” he said. “We got a wake-up call and hopefully it gives everyone else one…Someone was watching over us that day. I know that we were very, very lucky.”