Racing toward success in physical therapy | Kirsten Williams ’17

Physical Therapist Kirsten Williams used her UCCS Biology degree to take on advanced research at CU Anschutz.

Kristen Williams ’17 has always followed a track toward success. For 10 years, she worked to become a winning indoor track cyclist and, this December, she will pass the finish line in her marathon through the University of Colorado school system to become an expert in physical therapy.

In just under seven years, she has earned both her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and her Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

As a Colorado native, Williams grew up south of Denver in the suburb of Lone Tree and spent a lot of time in Colorado Springs watching her father Victor compete in track cycling races at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) Velodrome.

By age 13, Williams began competing in track cycling races, eventually doing 15k (9.32 mile) endurance races in the expansive arena.

“It’s a large oval-shaped track,” Williams explains. “You ride a [single-speed] bike around and … speed up by pedaling harder and slow down by going up the track.”

Soon, Williams got on the USA Cycling National Team and dedicated herself to the sport while being homeschooled between races, never giving much thought to higher education or a career — until she got injured.

“I broke my wrist twice and my elbow,” Williams says. “Due to those injuries, I had to do quite a lot of physical therapy.”

Williams learned more about the PT profession by speaking with her neighbor, a Certified Physical Therapist, who told her to pursue a Bachelor degree, then her DPT. Initially, Williams wanted to find an undergraduate program out of state. Then tragedy struck.

In 2014, Williams’ father died after cycling for almost 30 years.

“My dad was high-level competitive; he became a world medalist,” Williams says. “It was kind of a family thing.”

To commemorate her dad, Williams went on to win the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Junior Track World Championships in Seoul, South Korea before making the decision to stop cycling and kickstart her education.

Because UCCS was close to home and more close-knit than other schools, Williams enrolled in 2014 and immediately fit in as a non-traditional student.

“Because it’s a smaller school, you feel very supported,” Williams explains. “You can really develop a close relationship with your professors.

In one class, Williams recalls working with the UCCS Human Physiology & Nutrition Chair, Andrew Subudhi, on a research project involving supplemental oxygen use during exercise. By the end of it, Williams was listed as the primary co-author for the project’s journal entry based on her contributions.

On top of research accolades, Williams’ biology degree also gave the right knowledge for becoming a PT at Anschutz.

“Having a strong background in sciences, and opportunities to do research — it’s really well set up for helping students have success,” Williams explains.

This model for achievement is shared throughout the CU system.

At CU Anschutz, which ranks as one of the leading medical campuses in the world, students can work in and collaborate between six medical schools and three hospitals, which are built into the former Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado.

Now called the Fitzsimons Innovation Community, this educational hub includes a residential town center, 21 Fitzsimons, as well as the Children’s Hospital of Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Regional Veterans Affairs Hospital, and the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, which has a network of clinics across the Front Range.

So far at Anschutz, Williams has been able to participate in four in-depth and diverse clinicals at different outpatient facilities, each lasting 8-10 weeks.

“By the end of my last clinical, I was managing about a 60 percent caseload independently and assisting with the other 40 percent,” Williams says. “Within the program they require you to work with a variety of populations, so I’ve worked with all types of people that need PT.”

Williams is also reinforcing her learning with more research. In her current work-study position with Corey Christansen of the Anschutz Physical Therapy Department, Williams is measuring the effects of therapy on activity levels by using FitBit-style devices to monitor data.

“Research is a way to build up evidence,” she says. “Within biology and physiology, it’s really good to know how the body responds to stresses from exercise — how environmental factors will affect quality of life.”

Comprehensive care is one of Willaims’ biggest motivators when it comes to therapy. Even with her work and learning going virtual due to COVID-19, she hasn’t stopped thinking about how to treat clinical patients holistically.

“Something that isn’t necessarily thought about is realizing you’re there for the whole person,” Williams says. “You want to work with people, helping them process their emotions and connect what you’re doing back to their long term goal.”

Part of Williams’ own plan is to begin a post-graduate internship in inpatient care and keep researching better physical therapy practices, maybe even at UCCS.

UCCS has now opened the cutting-edge William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center, which will offer endless possibilities for more therapy research. This makes Williams happy, especially if it means more cross-campus collaborations.

“I think a lot of my professors will be very involved with [Hybl], so I’m excited for the research opportunities that could exist between campuses,” Williams says.

With this, she feels grateful to have stayed on track through the CU system, and that her determination is paying off.

“CU has given me my whole education,” Williams concludes. “So I’m thankful.”