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SUNY Potsdam’s exercise science program has been a treadmill to success for Lucas Rucci ’20 and Wilber Parada ’20.

Now in their final semester at SUNY Potsdam, both students were just accepted into the Doctor of Physical Therapy programs of their choice. After they receive their bachelor’s degrees in May, Rucci will enter the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Nazareth College, and Parada will make his way to Long Island for the DPT program at the New York Institute of Technology.

In high school, physical therapy had a personal impact on both students’ lives after they sustained painful injuries on the soccer field. Parada broke his ankle and Rucci injured his hip, leading them to seek treatment from experienced physical therapists. Rucci hoped for a quick recovery in order to get back on the field for the last couple of games of the season. “They fixed my hip in a matter of weeks. They miraculously helped me out. I was like, ‘Wow, I could really see myself doing this and helping people, making them feel better, and getting them back to doing their daily functions,’” he said.

After Parada and Rucci graduated from high school, they both chose SUNY Potsdam and entered the exercise science program led by Tanya Hewitt, chair of the Department of Public Health and Human Performance, and Dr. Christopher M. Torres, an assistant professor of exercise science. Because Hewitt knew about their aspirations early on, she was able to set them on the right path.

“I sat down and really talked to Tanya and expressed my interest in physical therapy. She let me know what I needed to do throughout my years at SUNY Potsdam to prepare for the program,” Parada said. “It’s a small enough program that your professors really get to know you—they care about what each student wants to do after they graduate.”

“I love SUNY Potsdam! I met a lot of great people. It’s a small enough school that you can get close to teachers, and they know who you are, especially in the major, and I think that’s really important.” -Parada

From studying kinesiology and exercise physiology with Torres, to learning personal training with Hewitt, SUNY Potsdam created the perfect stepping-stone for their aspirations. Hewitt’s style of teaching and hands-on approach really resonated with Rucci. “Basically, you learn all of the ins and outs of being someone’s personal trainer. One class, we would learn a certain workout, whether it was bench press or squats, and then we would demonstrate our knowledge of that workout the next class,” he said.

In addition to their exercise science courses, Rucci and Parada spent numerous hours interning at physical therapy practices around the state. Parada shadowed Vinise Mule-Glass, a well-known physical therapist who has worked with Eli Manning and Muhammad Ali. He also observed physical therapists at the St. Charles Rehabilitation Center—the same clinic where he received treatment back in high school.

“I thought that I was just going to sit there and watch and fold towels, but by the end of it, I got pretty involved in looking at the types of treatment they do, and helping set the patient up for the physical therapist,” Parada said.

Since his freshman year at SUNY Potsdam, Parada has worked hard to make his dream of becoming a physical therapist a reality. “It’s not one of those things where in your junior or senior year you’re like, ‘Oh, I want to apply to physical therapy school.’ You actually have to know your freshman year or your sophomore year, very early on in college. A lot of schools require 100 observational hours,” he said.

Rucci completed his observation hours at the Noyes Hospital, in Dansville, N.Y. where he shadowed Dr. Zach Mix in their outpatient care facility. “He specializes in the vestibular system, so, the communication between your ears, eyes and the brain. He works with patients dealing with vertigo. Watching him treat vertigo was a really neat process. That’s what I’m hoping to mirror when I go to PT school,” Rucci said.

That specialization dovetailed perfectly with slacklining—Rucci’s greatest passion. Some physical therapy practices have started to incorporate slacklining into their treatment of patients to improve balance and stability, something that Rucci hopes to assimilate into his workflow one day. “Slacking is actually a product of rock climbing. For me, it has always been a huge anxiety reliever. I do struggle with anxiety very heavily, and from my experience, a lot of my thoughts and feelings about things are very future-oriented, and not taking things day-by-day. What slacklining kind of does for me is to keep me mentally and physically focused on the moment,” he said.

Rucci has been a regular fixture in SUNY Potsdam’s Academic Quad, where he connects webbing between two trees and—much like a tightrope walker in the circus—traverses back and forth with precision balance. He also started a slacklining club to introduce his classmates to the sport. “You can really bond with people through it. It’s a great activity for groups of people to communicate, to get to know one another and make new friends,” he said.

As he wraps up his senior year, Rucci is completing an internship at Hoose Knight & Associates, a physical therapy practice just five minutes from campus. “Every physical therapist that I’ve observed has been awesome at telling me what’s happening with the patient, why they chose the treatment plan that they did, and letting me ask as many questions as I want,” Rucci said. “I almost feel like I’m already in PT school observing these physical therapists.”

Article and photos by Jason Hunter

"I chose Potsdam originally because out of all of the colleges that I visited, when I was on SUNY Potsdam's campus I just felt comfortable. It’s just kind of a feeling you have. You just know. I love the North Country. The Adirondacks are literally in our backyard. It’s awesome to have those recreational activities available when things get stressful at school.” -Rucci