BERKELEY -- The U.S. Olympic team will go to London next month with a blue-and-gold prescription for its aches and pains.
UC Berkeley physician Cindy J. Chang will be the team's chief medical officer, managing a contingent of 80 doctors, massage therapists, chiropractors and trainers tasked with keeping 525 of the country's top athletes healthy. Chang is the first woman to hold the unpaid position.
Aside from her management duties, Chang will have the unenviable responsibility of being the medical team's public face, explaining athletes' serious injuries and illnesses.
"I tell all my colleagues, 'It's best if you never see my face on TV,'" said Chang, 48, who became Cal's head sports physician in 1995. She has since stepped down from that job, but still works at the university and treats Cal athletes. "It's best to be in the background."
Chang, an athlete herself with six knee surgeries to show for it, is new to the Olympics but not to the challenges of international competition. She was chief medical officer for the 2008 U.S. Paralympic team in Beijing, working with elite disabled athletes, and a doctor with winter Paralympic teams in 1998 and 2002.
The energetic doctor's experience at international events, as well as her background treating Cal athletes in 27 intercollegiate sports, led U.S. Olympic Committee officials to hand her the London job, said Dr. Bill Moreau, the committee's medical director.
The Olympics are
Although Chang left her job as Cal's team physician to spend more time with her husband and two children, she has remained a force in the sports medicine community.
Aside from her continuing university duties, the Berkeley resident is finishing up a year as president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, and she counsels high school coaches on avoiding and treating concussions. Last week, she urged the school board to buy defibrillators for Berkeley High School.
Chang's patients say she's just the person to soothe Olympic athletes likely to be stressed out about injuries threatening to derail years of hard work.
"Right away, you just trust her," said former Cal rower Erin Cafaro, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics and will be on the London team. "That demeanor is going to mean a lot. Your goals and dreams are on the line. You want someone you can feel comfortable with and trust."
Call her chicken soup for the athlete's soul, said Chase Lyman, a former Cal wide receiver drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2005.
"She was almost motherly, in a way," Lyman said. "She never overreacted to anything. It's kind of what you want when you're dealing with a freak injury and you don't know what's going to happen."
Chang months ago began leaping the hurdles involved in sending a team of U.S. doctors to practice medicine in another country. Some of the tasks involved due diligence -- inspecting British hospitals and Olympic venues, for example -- and others were bureaucratic, such as applying for temporary licenses for the American doctors.
"That was fairly time-consuming," Chang said. "They would say, 'We need more information on this physician,' or, 'This diploma is in Latin and we need it translated.'"
The Olympic Games have their own unique range of medical issues. Which medicines are prohibited by international sports bodies? How would doctors treat an injured marathoner miles from the starting line? And how to break the news that an Olympic athlete is too badly injured to compete?
"The urgency to return someone to competition is probably the highest we'll experience," Chang said. "Preparing for the Olympics has been their full-time job."
Another challenge: figuring out how to treat, say, an archer when you've never done it before. Chang said she has learned how to deal with less common injuries by treating Cal students increasingly involved in more obscure sports such as parkour (jumping, climbing and vaulting urban obstacles) and rock climbing.
"You've got to be willing to admit you don't know a sport well," she said. "You have to ask. If you pretend you know, you're done."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/MattKrupnick.
Claim to fame: Chief medical officer for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team
Day job: Sports medicine specialist at UC Berkeley
Family: Husband, two children
Education: Bachelor's and medical degrees, Ohio State University