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From Swarthmore to the Super Bowl

Physician Ashwin Rao ’99 patches up players competing for football’s grandest glory

From Nobel prizes to Grammy awards to presidential medals of honor, Swarthmore alums are accustomed to winning some of the world’s most prestigious accolades. But Ashwin Rao ’99 possesses one award that few (if any) Swarthmore graduates can claim—a Super Bowl ring.

Rao, a team physician for the Seattle Seahawks for the last six seasons, shared in the Super Bowl glory when his team took football’s crown jewel last January. 

A career spent on the NFL’s sidelines certainly wasn’t part of Rao’s game plan when he graduated from Swarthmore with honors in biochemistry. After medical school at Case Western Reserve University, he moved to Seattle to begin a family medicine residency at the University of Washington.

“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,” says Rao, a Cleveland native. “Instead, I quickly found out that sports medicine was my passion.”

Shortly after his shift to sports medicine, Rao began working with the University of Washington’s athletics department. There he reconnected with Jonathan Drezner, primary-care physician for the Seahawks. Drezner was new to the job and searching for assistants, which led to Rao’s appointment. 

Now, besides his part-time work with the Seahawks, Rao is a faculty member in the University of Washington’s Department of Family Medicine and directs the school’s sports medicine program.

Rao’s Seahawks duties range from preseason physical evaluations of players to game-day coverage, meaning he attends all home games and about half of the team’s road contests. On a typical game day, he arrives three hours before kickoff to check in with players on ailments, which, he says, have ranged from “appendicitis to a hernia to simple coughs and colds.”

Once the game begins, it’s a matter of monitoring players for injuries. “I’m watching the game in very different ways than a fan would watch a game,” he says. “Basically, I have to be alert and ready to respond to any injury from kickoff to the final whistle.”

Rao felt privileged last year to watch the Seahawks wallop the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. Despite the high stakes, Rao claims the Super Bowl wasn’t much different from any other Seahawks game—just busier.

“I got butterflies when I walked onto the field with the team during the opening introductions and again when Joe Namath walked right by me on the sidelines,” he notes.

Swarthmore remains a special place to Rao. He is quick to admit that without the skills and work habits he developed at Swarthmore, he wouldn’t be where he is today. Even with the enormous demands of Super Bowl week, he made time to meet up with three of his closest College friends: Andy Caffrey ’99, Bob Griffin ’99, and Gordon Roble ’99.

“Swarthmore was the most rewarding academic experience of my life,” he says. “The blend of an incredibly challenging workload and the deep and lasting friendships you create makes it unique.” 

Through his role at the University of Washington, Rao collaborates on a variety of research projects, continuing an effort he began at the College while working with Robert Pasternack, Edmund Allen Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biochemistry, on his honors thesis. He also makes time to pursue his hobby, photography.

As for the prized Super Bowl ring, Rao says it’s in safekeeping at his home. “I think of it as a cool memento and wonderful recognition of our efforts to take care of individuals. To me, it symbolizes that we really are part of the team.”