Massage and Bodywork Magazine for the Visually Impaired - An Interview with Benny Vaughn

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September/October 2014 Issue

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An Interview with Benny Vaughn

This influential bodyworker changed the face of sports massage

By Brandon Twyford

Benny Vaughn is a legend in the field of massage therapy. Known as the “father of sports massage,” his pioneering work has had an immeasurable impact on the acceptance of massage in sports therapy and on the profession as a whole.
Vaughn has worked on the best athletes in the world, both in private practice and as the senior massage therapist for the US Olympic track and field team. He has served as a mentor to several prominent massage therapists, including Whitney Lowe, who has called his time with Vaughn “the most valuable learning experience of my career.” In 2012, Vaughn was awarded the ONE Concept Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the massage therapy profession.
This October marks the 40th anniversary of Vaughn’s massage therapy career. Massage & Bodywork asked him to share a little of his remarkable story.

M&B: What inspired you to get into massage therapy?

In 1969, I was at the University of Florida on an athletic scholarship to run track. I read an article in Track & Field News about how massage therapy was being used by many European runners to help with recovery and performance. That article piqued my interest. There were no massage therapists where I was. I’m sure massage must have been happening somewhere, but it wasn’t happening there.
I purchased and read The Massage Book by George Downing, and I was just fascinated with the whole idea. Look at all these things you can do with your hands, these different strokes—it helps this, it helps that, it makes muscles work better. I just thought it was so cool.
When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, she said, “You know, there are massage schools where you can learn how to do this.” I was like, “What? Really?” I started looking up massage schools—there were only two or three in Florida at that time—and enrolled at a place in Gainesville that is now the Florida School of Massage, but at the time was called the American Institute of Massage. I went through a 10-month training program and then did an apprenticeship for another year under my mentor, and here I am 40 years later, still doing it.

M&B: And discovering massage made you to want to learn more about the body and health?

Yeah. So getting a degree in health education just sort of made sense to me. My specialized certification track was health promotion and wellness, which fit right in to massage.
I added to that the requirements to become a certified athletic trainer (athletic training certified, or ATC). An ATC is charged with the care, prevention, and treatment of athletic injuries. It requires a four-year degree, with coursework including anatomy, kinesiology, orthopedic assessment, physiology, and therapeutic modalities, and a certain number of clinical practicum hours working under an athletic trainer.  
Keep in mind, I had already been a massage therapist for 10 years when I enrolled in the ATC program. I was attracted to it because I was looking for more assessment skills. At the time I went through massage school, assessment was not part of the curriculum. I think massage therapists serve a more important role in the health-care system than we recognize. A massage client usually sees their massage therapist more often than their primary care physician. Massage therapists should gain knowledge on assessment and various types of joint conditions, so they can recognize these conditions and accurately refer clients to the appropriate specialist.

M&B: Tell us about your experience as a track and field athlete.

Track and field has been great for me. It’s allowed me to travel and meet interesting people.
I started high school in 1964. It was the first year of desegregation in Georgia, so I was bused to what had been an all-white high school in Columbus, where I was the first black athlete on the high school track team.
In my senior year of high school, because of my track and field record, all the Southeastern Conference schools—Georgia, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Auburn, and Alabama—recruited me vigorously. But I had the best recruiting visit at the University of Florida. I felt welcome there. I was the third black athlete on the University of Florida track team and only the fifth at the school. Had I gone to any of the other schools, I would have been their first or second black athlete at that time.

M&B: Your athletic background and your massage career led you to work with the US Track and Field team at the World Championships and Olympic Games, and you were responsible for getting massage incorporated into the US Olympic program.

It started when the Olympic Games came to Atlanta in 1996. I was the  manager of athlete medical services for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. The majority of the Olympics is run by volunteers—taking tickets, putting hurdles on the track, setting up the events. Massage therapists had been used at Olympic Games in America in the past, but it was always an outside service. They didn’t get the official Olympic volunteer uniform. I wanted massage therapists to be official members of the community of volunteers. I was in a position to do that, so I did. It just made sense.
I worked with the general medical team at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, but specifically with the US Olympic team in 2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing, and 2012 in London. I was senior massage therapist for the team in London.
I also worked as a massage therapist at the Track and Field World Championships in 2003 in Paris, 2007 in Osaka, and 2009 in Berlin, and at the World Indoor Track and Field Championships in 2011 in Istanbul. Berlin was pretty cool. The 2009 World Championships were held in the same stadium used for the Olympics in 1936. Of course, I know the story of Jesse Owens [the black track and field athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating Adolf Hitler’s hopes of proving white superiority during the Games], so as an American, and a black American, I was very proud to be where Jesse Owens made his mark. I tried to imagine as I walked through the old Olympic Park and the stadium what it was like in 1936.

M&B: People of color are still a minority in massage therapy, and so are men. What are your thoughts on diversity in the profession?

Diversity begins with how different groups see and accept touch. In my experience, in the black community in America, touch is not seen as therapeutically as in other cultures. It carries connotations of restraint, attack, or incarceration. Touch meant something very different for black people in a slave-based society. The only time you got touched back then was in a bad way. There was a concerted effort by plantation owners and slave traders to break up family bonds, restrict interaction, and forbid collaboration. Touching is a sign of connection, and connection was a thing to be disrupted. That DNA is still in the black community in America today. This is just my take on it—my opinion.
I think the way we continue to introduce massage to more people of color is for those of us of color who are in the profession to continue to be as visible as we can be, and as inspirational as we can be.
Men in the profession have to deal with what I think is part of a homophobic epidemic in America. Even when I began, in my early days, some of my teammates told me later that they were “worried” about me because I had gone into massage. What were they worried about? What they were really saying was, “We were kind of homophobic back then.”
I think in the black community, homophobia is probably greater than in other communities, and that’s just from my personal observations. I can remember when I began in this profession, black men saying to me, “I’m not letting some guy touch me.” I reminded them Muhammad Ali, the toughest man on the planet, had a black man as his trainer, and that trainer massaged him.
But I do think it’s getting better. It’s certainly a whole lot better than when I began my career.

M&B: The double cultural barrier as a black man in the massage profession makes it all the more impressive that you have been as successful as you have.

Yes, and the reason I’ve been successful is that I’ve adhered to the highest standards of ethics and professionalism. I mean the highest. And the reason I did is that I had to. I had to be better than my white counterparts. I had to do better at all times, in all areas. I was not given any margin for error; I was not given any margin to not get it right. All I had to do was get it wrong one time, and I’d have been finished.
When I began my career in 1974, for the first two years, I would only see male clients. In the deep South, a black man massaging a white woman? They lynched black men for just looking at a white woman! So I hired a female therapist to take care of female clients.
However, I had many women who would ask, “Why can’t I get an appointment with you?” So I came up with a system where I would massage a woman only if she was referred to me by one of my male clients. That was how I protected myself. And even then, I moved into it apprehensively.
But, of course, as my professional reputation grew, I started getting people from all over. They came to see me and they looked past the fact that I was a man, and they looked past my color. But from the very beginning, I was aware I had to work at the highest ethical level, and I still practice those ethics to this day. I don’t leave a stone unturned when it comes to ethics and being professional with all clients.
M&B: When would you say, roughly, that this change happened, when people began to look beyond your color and gender?

I’d say about 1982. And let me just say, even today—even today!—there are times when people show up at my clinic and they have a shocked look on their face when I greet them, like, “You’re Benny Vaughn?” They’ve heard these great things about me, so they just assume I’ve got to be a white guy. That’s in 2014. I’m still experiencing this.
But the difference from 1974 is that I am much better at handling it, managing it, and making it a teachable moment for those individuals. I don’t get angry about it. One of the great Buddhist sayings is, “Anger is like holding a burning coal. The only person that it hurts is you.” You need to let go of that burning coal.

M&B: What do you think is the most important challenge facing massage therapy today?

The massage therapy profession has a reputation of being kind of weird, or being too new-agey (whatever that means), not being on time, going over time, not showing up. So I think the biggest challenge is just being professional. If we want to be treated like professionals, we need to behave like professionals.

M&B: What advice would you give therapists regarding professional longevity?

Take your health seriously. Treat massage therapy as an athletic event and train yourself the way you’d train for an athletic event. I’ll be 63 in October, and I can still make it go. I still come to work every day and do massage. My average day is seven or eight sessions, five days a week. Some of these young massage therapists, after three or four people, they say, “Man, I need to go home,” and I’m like, “Come on, you gotta do better than that!”
I’m by no means suggesting that people need to work themselves to injury. But if you have good body mechanics, if you take care of yourself nutritionally, work out, and stretch—you can have a long career in massage and provide great service for people.
Typically, I can work more than all the young massage therapists, because I know how. You have to use good body mechanics at the table, and you have to strength train—lift weights or do some kind of resistance training. You have to spend a lot of time stretching, too. Your shoulders, hips, feet, hamstrings—everything.
Also, do things that make you happy. Have a work environment that you love. My office is a wonderful place. People just like coming to my office because it’s so comfortable. So many massage therapists are put into small, windowless rooms that are like caves. I don’t understand that. I’m designing my new massage facility now, and every treatment room will have a window for natural lighting.

M&B: You have a reputation as a rock star in the world of continuing education.

Educators carry a great responsibility that can dictate both the direction and the outcome of our profession in the future. It’s a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Our profession will be judged by how we educate our students, because that’s the next generation that’s going out there to work on people.
And I will say this: there are a lot of dog-and-pony shows out there that are taking money under the guise of education. Massage therapy, 25–30 years ago, had low professional self-esteem, so it became a beacon for snake oil salesmen who knew they could impress massage therapists because they had credentials in other health-care fields.
I mean, seriously? A doctor or a physical therapist knows more about massage than we do? You’ve got to be kidding me. Why aren’t we heralding the veteran massage therapists out there? We need to celebrate our own people, our veterans and our old-timers within massage therapy. We don’t celebrate them. All we’re looking for is the newest fancy technique.

M&B: What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to keep working for the next 10 years, and at 73 I’m bailing out. At that point, I’ll turn it over to the young massage therapists to keep it going, but my name will still be on the building.

M&B: And you’ll still be able to outwork them.


Brandon Twyford is assistant editor of Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals.

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