Doctor lands fellowship from UPMC, gains post at Sochi Games
February 9, 2014 10:59 PM
USOC chief medical officer Dr. Gloria Beim with snowboard gold medalist Shaun White in Sochi.
By J. Brady McCollough / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SOCHI, Russia -- When talking to Dr. Gloria Beim, details emerge that only begin to explain how she emerged to become Team USA's chief medical officer at the Sochi Winter Olympics, supervising more than 70 medical professionals in charge of keeping United States athletes in shape to pursue their dreams.
There is the one about Beim starting college when she was 14 because she had basically run through all the available curriculum at her Montessori school. Then there is the one about her spending time each day of the past eight months learning to speak and comprehend Russian so that she can be fully communicative in Sochi. And in between those examples, which span the breadth of her development into one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country, there is the one about how a young woman with a Columbia University medical school degree broke into a man's game by coming to Pittsburgh.
Beim had heard about the sports medicine fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, run by Dr. Freddie Fu and Dr. Christopher Harner, and she wanted one of the spots, badly. But at that time, in the mid-1990s, UPMC had never had a female fellow in its program. How could she make it happen? Well, she would run into Fu at conventions and meetings each year and introduced herself.
"Dr. Fu," Beim says, "is bigger than life."
Beim made enough of an impression to gain an interview. But, on the night before she was scheduled to fly from New York to Pittsburgh, there was a major snowstorm, and her flight would be cancelled. She called to Fu's secretary and begged for her to reschedule, but she said this was the only day for interviews. Beim figured that fate had stepped in and cruelly rendered its judgment. She was not going to be a fellow at UPMC.
But then, a break! Two of the other candidates, who were students at Harvard, also had been snowed in. So Beim was told she could interview the next day in Pittsburgh.
Her adventure was just getting started. Little did she know that Fu had been in a serious skiing accident at Seven Springs a week earlier. He had five fractured ribs and a broken clavicle. Being Fu, though, he was back at work. Maybe it was just her nervous energy, but, when making a joke with Fu at the interview, she slapped him on the back. Fu grimaced. He was in pain. He told her about his injury, and Beim was mortified. Once again, she thought she was done at UPMC.
"She thinks I won't offer her a job," Fu recalls.
Somewhere, deep down, likely beyond his clavicle, Fu couldn't shake this feeling that he had to have Beim in his program. She would be his first woman fellow, and he would waste no time pushing previously set boundaries.
Fu assigned her Pitt football, men's basketball and wrestling.
"I challenged the system," Fu says. "I assign a fellow to any sport I want, but I really wanted to test the culture. The players, the trainers, I wanted them to learn to work with a female, and I thought that she was up to the task to do it."
That year, Beim performed a lot of ACL surgeries. She wrote a lot of papers. She did not sleep much. And, funny enough, she had earned her stripes by suffering a knee injury of her own. She was on the sideline when a Pitt football player ran into her, hyperextending her knee.
After that, given the clavicle incident, Fu called it even.
"I told her later, 'Now you hurt your knee, we've paid it back,' " Fu says.
Beim has spent her entire career paying back Fu's faith in her. She moved to Crested Butte, Colo., to open her own practice, believing that she wouldn't be nearly as prepared if not for her year in Pittsburgh. In 1997, she began working with USA Cycling, and in 2000, she began volunteering her services with the United States Olympic Committee.
The 2004 Athens Games were her first Olympics. She skipped on Beijing in 2008 to have a baby daughter and rejoined the cause for London in 2012.
"There's something special and magical about Olympic athletes," Beim says, "particularly during the period of the Games. I can't explain it. But the energy and the passion and the excitement, and the ability to witness history and greatness, is so special. I'm just so thrilled that I get to do it again."
In Sochi, she will be the go-to person for all USOC medical personnel. It will be a lot to juggle, but nobody can say she isn't prepared. In a recent phone conversation, Beim was able to blurt a stream of Russian words. As usual, her preparation is the difference.
"This is biggest honor I could ever dream of," Beim says. "I'm going overboard."
And in Pittsburgh, Fu isn't hiding the pride he feels in Beim, and the movement she helped start for more diversity in his program.
"I have 44 trainees," Fu says. "You have a critical mass. Once we created an environment where you want to find the best, whether it's male, female doesn't matter. It's a philosophy. You see what Gloria achieved."
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