From Competition to Care: Deandre Small Earns DPT Degree


AmbroseZine February 2021

As a competitive swimmer, Deandre Small '20 DPT learned first-hand how an injury can impact performance and the value of a skilled physical therapist. In fact, her experience is what led her to pursue a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at St. Ambrose.

It is a journey that began in her home country of Barbados and a story marked by fierce drive and independence, all of which began on her sixth birthday when her parents drove her to the local aquatic center and announced it was time she learned to swim.

Small didn't want anything to do with it but her parents insisted. "I was crying and the water was so cold," she said, adding that was the beginning of a swimming career that led to the 2014 World Swimming Championship in Doha, Qatar, four years as a collegiate athlete, and two years as an assistant coach at St. Ambrose. "I don't know if my parents expected it to go as far as it did," she said.

Small competed in her first meet at the age of seven. For the next eight years, she continued to compete and train while also attending school, running cross country, track and field, taking piano lessons, and doing homework. In 2011, at the age of 15, she moved away from her parents to Florida to expand her swimming career. "There are very few parents who will send their children away at such a young age for the benefit of swimming. My parents were always incredibly supportive," she said.

The next year, she moved to England and continued training and competing. While there, she hurt her back and was treated by a physical therapist. Then, during a trip home to Barbados, she was treated by a second physical therapist at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Dr. Gerry Warner, who she'd known since childhood.

"The experience of not being able to train, to do what I was there for, was not fun," Small said. "The two people who helped me recover were physical therapists, and I always knew I wanted to do something related to sports and the body."

Deandre Small '20

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)

A former competitive swimmer who has personally experienced the care of physical therapy, Small starts work this spring at a skilled nursing facility in Florida.

Learn about the DPT program

A year before she finished her undergraduate degree in Health and Human Performance at The College in Idaho, Small had a conversation with the Fighting Bees Swimming and Diving Head Coach Rob Miecznikowski. He told her about SAU's leading DPT program and mentioned he would need an assistant coach the following year, an opening she hoped to fill as a graduate assistant.

Small knew the academic and clinical demands of the DPT program would consume most of her time but assistant coaching would allow her to remain connected to the sport, something Small said was important to her.

"I was swimming from the age of six until I was 22–most of my life. It was hard to give up," she said. "But with swimming, I was training twice a day and going to the gym at least once a day. I knew while I was in physical therapy school, I would not be able to train at such a level to maintain highly competitive performance."

Small dedicated herself to coursework, often attending classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by study groups and serving as an assistant swim coach before and after classes on various days. She also participated in several volunteer activities at food banks and programs that promote health and wellness to children.

For her degree, she spent 36 weeks completing seven clinical rotations, experiencing the profession first-hand in different settings and working with a range of clients. Small realized she prefers to work in an inpatient rehabilitation with opportunities to build professional relationships with her patients, as opposed to a short-term, acute care setting.

"I learned I genuinely enjoy talking to people, being building rapport with patients, and that I could never do a job where I am not interacting with people."

Small recently took the National Physical Therapy Exam and the Florida jurisprudence exam. She looks forward to launching a career at her new job in Florida at a skilled nursing facility near Gainesville.

"Right now, I am in a big transition. I've been at school all my life so far, and now I will be working. I will have a career, a salary, and I will be starting my real adult life. I am looking forward to it!"

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