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Michigan Athletics | February 8, 2014

Michigan's Dr. Kutcher joins Team USA as head neurologist

As the world prepares for another Olympic Winter Games, it's worth remembering that it takes a highly skilled team to get these athletes ready for competition. Each member of the specific team has a specialty. From the coaches to the equipment managers, everyone is focusing on improving the athlete. After all, there is a roster of proven winners from around the globe hungry to bring home gold for their nation, and everyone must work together for success.

The health of these athletes is paramount. In all sports, injuries play a huge role during the Games and even before they start. Team USA skier Lindsey Vonn suffered a knee injury, keeping her out of the Olympics, and just this past week, a snowboarder from Finland suffered a concussion after a crash in a practice session in Sochi.

This, of course, is where the trainers and physicians come into play. And one of the physicians that will be leading the effort for our Team USA athletes in Russia will be Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher.

Kutcher is a team physician with the Michigan Athletic Department. He is head of the U-M NeuroSport clinic and has earned a worldwide reputation for sports neurology, helping develop new concussion guidelines for the American Academy of Neurology.

An amateur skier himself, Kutcher is realizing an Olympic dream by going to Sochi as a member of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. While at the Olympics, not only will Kutcher help the skiers and snowboarders, he will be there to help the entire United States contingent. He also works with the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), and they asked him to be on-call to assess any NHL player from any country if needed.

No doubt, Dr. Kutcher knows what he's talking about, and his affiliation with Michigan and especially his work as team physician has parlayed his knowledge into becoming one of the most sought-after sports neurological experts in the United States.

Dr. Kutcher knew he was going to Sochi two years ago. The U.S. Olympic organizations work in four-year cycles, and the USSA contingent represents almost 50 percent of the United States athletes competing in Russia. Once the USOC knew Dr. Kutcher was going to be in Sochi working with the skiers and snowboard team, they asked him if he would be the team neurologist for the entire United States contingent.

His background with 31 sports teams at Michigan has especially helped Dr. Kutcher. Even though the difference in the injuries themselves isn't significant, how the different sports are managed is enormous.

The U-M athletic teams operate in a well-controlled environment. The physicians know exactly where their resources are located. The parameters are easily understood, and they become familiar to everyone involved.

An international World Cup ski race is much different. Kutcher had to familiarize himself with the operations of the event: Where do the athletes go in-between runs? Where do they warm up? Where do they go when they are injured?

These international events are not as predictable, and individuals have less control of the environment. Instead of evaluating a football player in a locker room or training room, Dr. Kutcher has had to work on athletes on a side of icy mountains, staying firm on his own skis so as not to make matters worse for the patient or himself. Every event is different. From the downhill to the half pipe to snowboard cross, the different sports have their own set of challenges.

If those challenges aren't tough enough, now he has to work with the International Olympic Committee in Sochi.

Emergency response is handled by the IOC and the Russian Olympic Committee. The second layer is the United States' team physician, and the third layer is the team physician for each discipline that competes in the Winter Olympics. Each discipline also has a full-time athletic trainer, physical therapists and other core medical providers. This complex situation is made even more difficult with the numerous locations for each event, and then where the closest emergency hospital is.

Many might say Dr. Kutcher is one more layer, but "getting your bell rung" is an ancient term in the world of sports. The mismanagement of concussions and neurological injuries can create life-long health problems. He is going to Sochi to be the head neurological physician, and he is doing this as a volunteer.

If he's fortunate, planning will be the toughest part of the trip. Kutcher's schedule will have to coincide with the plans of the entire United States medical contingent. He will place himself at the spot where a neurological accident most likely could happen. Right now he knows where he will be on day one, but after that, he might need a second travel agent to schedule his activities.

This is a significant job. There is an enormous amount of responsibility, and he, along with all the doctors and athletic trainers, is doing this for the safety and well-being of all the athletes.

The Russians have built world-class medical facilities for the 2014 Winter Olympics, but a competition far from your homeland is still disconcerting. That is why the USOC brings in specialists to help our athletes perform their best. That is why they selected Michigan's Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher.