For Yale doctor, an elite long-jumper, helping disabled athletes is a calling
Yetsa Tuakli-Wosornu ’01 B.A., an Olympic-caliber competitor, knows what it takes to be an athlete, and athletes are the focus of her work as a physician — treating their injuries and calling attention to the special challenges faced by athletes with disabilities.
A physical medicine and rehabilitation physician (or physiatrist) and assistant clinical professor at Yale School of Public Health, Tuakli-Wosornu started her Olympic journey as a member of Yale’s track and field team, setting school records in the long and triple jump. She kept training while studying at Harvard Medical School and at Johns Hopkins, and, later, as a Harvard faculty member.
In 2016, after two decades of effort, she qualified as a finalist for Ghana’s Olympic team in the women’s long jump and competed in pre-Olympic Games events in the United States and the Bahamas, stopping just shy of the games themselves.
“I love it,” Tuakli-Wosornu said of the long-jump. “It’s fast, precise, technical, and a lot of fun. You have to convert horizontal speed to vertical impulse in a millisecond.”
Today, Tuakli-Wosornu aims to help all athletes perform at their best, with a special interest in the world’s most vulnerable athletes — Para athletes, or those with physical or intellectual disabilities, or both.
Amid the #MeToo movement and increased attention on harassment and abuse in sports, she wondered who was studying how these issues affected athletes. She found that although Para athletes are up to four times more likely than able-bodied athletes to experience abuse there was little existing research about it.
“The need is urgent but the literature is scant,” she said.
So, two years ago, Tuakli-Wosornu founded the Sports Equity Lab in association with Yale (SELY) at Yale School of Public Health. SELY pursues research that can inform policies around safe sporting environments and help fight abuse, in all forms, for all athletes. It also seeks to use sports as a platform for making universities and other sporting institutions more inclusive and accessible. Today nine Yale medical and public health students support the lab’s work.
“I have never seen an initiative like the Sports Equity Lab before,” said Sten Vermund, dean and the Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health and professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine. “Its creative approach to both the promise and risks of sports participation can help organizations in our local and our international communities make sports a true source of fitness and joy.”
The lab is now gathering data from a survey of elite athletes that explores their knowledge and understanding of their rights within a sporting context.
“We can write all the policies we want,” said Tuakli-Wosornu, the lab’s director. “It won’t have an impact if athletes don’t see themselves as rights-bearing citizens, worthy of defending.”
Taylor Ottesen ’21 M.D./M.B.A. was the first student to join the lab. He’d been interested in health equity across the board, studying barriers to access in HIV populations in the Ukraine, health literacy deficits in Colombia, and lack of access to surgery in Haiti, Ghana, and Guatemala.
Para athletes face abuse in many unseen ways, Ottesen said. A musculoskeletal injury for a Para athlete, he noted, can have far more serious consequences than it would for an able-bodied athlete. “For a Para athlete, an injury could mean they are no longer mobile,” he said. “This injury becomes a significant impairment to daily living, not just an inconvenience.”
There is also the issue of over-training and even financial abuse.
“Abuse can be neglect, but it can also be pushing the athlete too hard,” Ottesen said. “A disabled athlete may also be taken advantage of financially by coaches or caretakers and suffer yet another type of abuse. This is what we are trying to fight.”
SELY recently organized a panel discussion at the Yale Club of New York City with Sarah Klein, the first known survivor of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar; Olympic gold medal-winning track and field legend Edwin Moses; Connecticut Para athlete Jill Harpin; and bronze medal-winning Paralympian Bob Lujano, who competes in quad rugby, a.k.a. “murderball,” with no arms or legs.
Because SELY is not part of any national sports organizations, said Tuakli-Wosornu, it can make objective assessments about the best research practices from medical, public health, and human rights research and innovate boldly.
“Sport is its own unique space,” she said. “You have to take into account athletes’ blind ambition, the public perception of sports, and how athletes think in a training environment. Athletes are central in our work — and we are co-designing with them.”