Q+A with Seattle Seahawks Team Physician Ashwin Rao '99

by Sam Cleaves '14
Ashwin Rao '99
Ashwin Rao '99 with the Lombardi Trophy

Last week, the Seattle Seahawks soundly defeated the Denver Broncos 43-8 to win Super Bowl XLVIII.  Behind the scenes, a Swarthmore graduate played a vital role in the Seahawks' journey to a championship. For the past five seasons, Ashwin Rao '99 has served as one of the team's physicians. Following the Seahawks' Super Bowl win and victory parade, Rao answered a few questions about this role as an NFL team physician, how Swarthmore prepared him for his career, and whether or not Richard Sherman would fit in as a Swattie.   

How did you become involved with the Seattle Seahawks and the University of Washington athletic teams?

After graduating from Swarthmore, I pursued medical training at Case Western Reserve University in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Following medical school, I moved to Seattle to pursue the family medicine residency training at the University of Washington (UW). It had originally been my goal to enjoy Seattle for three years and move back to the Midwest or East Coast to become a general family doctor. However, as I became invested in my family medicine training, I realized that I preferred an area of expertise within primary care. I saw sports medicine as an ideal area around which to focus my training.

As I moved through my residency years, I made the measured decision to extend my training by one year and pursue a sports medicine fellowship at UW. It was during that year that I became involved with UW Husky athletics, serving as an assistant team physician to the football and basketball teams. Upon completing the fellowship, I was hired as a faculty member and was asked to continue as a team physician, which I gratefully accepted. After about a year at UW, one of my mentors and colleagues, Jonathan Drezner, was asked to become the primary care physician for the Seattle Seahawks. Realizing the commitments of the NFL schedule, he elected to bring me aboard as his assistant team physician. Over the five years that I have been involved with the team, my role has steadily grown. I now attend all home games and travel to half of our road games. And most recently, I was able to go to the ultimate road game, Super Bowl XLVIII.

Which aspect(s) of your job as a physician and team doctor are you most grateful for? 

I enjoy the diversity of responsibility that my job encompasses. Not only do I get to care for athletes participating at the highest levels of sport, but I also try to help recreational athletes, whose desire to return to their activity may be just as intense as an NFL or collegiate athlete. I am extensively involved with teaching and mentoring at the UW, working with medical students, residents, and fellows to prepare them for careers in primary care and sports medicine. Finally, I participate in a variety of scholarship and research projects, continuing an effort that began at Swarthmore, working with Bob Pasternack in the Chemistry Department on my honors thesis. I am grateful that my first job in medicine ended up being my dream job.

We understand that you are quite the photographer. What are your favorite subjects to photograph and what kind of photos did you take at the Super Bowl and championship parade?

I very much enjoy photographing people in their unique environments and in their element. The Super Bowl and the celebration parade were truly unique moments in Seattle history. I found after the game that Super Bowl XLVIII was the most watched TV event in U.S. history, and the parade to follow was Seattle's largest-ever gathering. Some might say that sporting events are purely entertainment and trivial in light of other, more important matters. Yet, it's sport that often brings people together and this sentiment was truly on display during the Seahawks' Super Bowl run. To be able to capture some of those moments with a camera was truly special for me.

While at the Super Bowl, I simply tried to capture photos in moments where it was permitted. While serving as a physician, my cameras are put aside in favor of far more important doctoring responsibilities. However, once the game was over, and the Seahawks had won their first Super Bowl, I made sure to pull out my camera and capture a few special moments.  My favorite photograph of the entire week was a photo that I didn't take. I was in the locker room after the game, and many players and team staff had brief seconds to hold the Lombardi trophy. I was standing next to one of my former UW Husky athletes and, after he had his picture taken with the trophy, he handed it to me. I hastily gave him my camera and he snapped a shot of me holding the Lombardi trophy (pictured above). That was my favorite photo moment.

What was the most thrilling moment for you during the Seahawks' Super Bowl run?

That's a tough one. There were so many special moments. For me, the most thrilling moment occurred during the NFC championship game when Richard Sherman tipped the last pass of the game, sending the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. That game, played against the 49ers, was one of the most intense sporting events that I have ever covered. Being that the game was played in our home stadium, with the incredible 12th Man cheering us on, was incredibly poignant. That I could bring my parents and fiancée Jennifer to the game, and to celebrate with them by jumping into the stands right after the game, was an amazing experience that I will never forget. Some might be surprised that the Super Bowl itself may have come second (and trust me, a very close second), but the circumstances around the 49ers game, the energy of the city, and the moment of victory ranked first in my thrilling moments of this past year.

What enduring values and experiences from your time at Swarthmore are still relevant to your life today?

The Swarthmore experience was the most rigorous academic endeavor that I have ever undertaken. For those students who may be reading this, I can tell you that the challenges at Swarthmore will prepare you very well for any challenge that comes after that, whatever your choice of profession. I can recall times at Swarthmore when I felt that the workload was too difficult, but my mentors, classmates, and friends helped to carry me forward and accomplish these goals. It's Swarthmore's unique blend of an incredibly challenging workload and deep and lasting friendships that make it unique. Without my time at Swarthmore, I wouldn't be doing what I do today.

I also want to take note of the deep and lasting friendships that I formed while at Swarthmore. Even to this day, 15 years after graduating, I regularly keep in touch with my Swattie friends. In fact, I was able to visit with three of my closest friends - Andy Caffrey '99, Bob Griffin '99, and Gordon Roble '99 - in New York during Super Bowl week, and they got to share in this experience with me!

As a Swarthmore student, what were your goals and ambitions, and in what way have those been achieved or changed? 

My goals as a Swarthmore student remain the same to this day. I have always strived to be the best possible version of myself, through hard work and determination. Swarthmore taught me humility and reinforced my work ethic. I have used these values at work and in my daily life, and as a result, I have been able to take advantage of some great opportunities along the way.

What foresight or advice might you have for Swarthmore students that you wish you had known as a college student? 

My only advice would be: persevere. I remember times at Swarthmore when I was exposed to new experiences and challenges that I thought would be difficult to overcome. I was able to rely on my friends and teachers, on the deans, on my RA's, and my classmates to push me forward. Graduating from Swarthmore with a degree in Biochemistry remains the academic goal of which I am most proud. Nothing compares to this challenge, and it will prepare you for everything else that comes after.

How would Richard Sherman fit in as a Swarthmore student? 

I think that Sherm would fit in great at Swarthmore. He's overcome a tremendous amount of adversity in his life, just as many Swatties have, and he strongly values the academic aspects of his journey, having graduated from a prestigious university and continuing to advocate for disadvantaged youth in similar circumstances to those which he faced. He's obviously tried to get the most out of his own talents, and yet is a complex man who I am certain has much more to offer in the years to come, in football and beyond.

Will the Seahawks repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2015? 

But, of course! Seriously though, in the NFL, nothing is guaranteed. I can say that our team seems hungry for greater glory, and the right elements seem to be in place. I am looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds!