Leah Oliver walked into the cavernous gymnasium at Mountain View High School on a recent Thursday afternoon for what she thought was a run-of-the-mill meeting.
The longtime athletic trainer, who remembers the exact day she was hired by the district (Jan. 8, 1989), was instead met by a surprise she’ll never forget.
As she walked into the gym, 100 or so student-athletes sat quietly, playing their part in the orchestrated event—before a curtain separating the students from a procession of loved ones opened dramatically.
Behind the curtain sat a customized trainer’s chair, emblazoned with her name—which will soon be transfixed above the doors of the athletic training room she’s transformed into a sanctuary for students and student-athletes alike.
The once-quiet student body burst into applause, while Oliver embraced a long line of protégés and family members.
There were students from her early years, such as Pam Andrews, who was a pupil in Andrews’ first class in 1989.
It was a who’s-who of Mountain View alumnus, with former silver medal-winning Olympic swimmer Lacey Nymeyer John dropping in to honor one of her main mentors.
“I think when you look at great athletes, and you look at their coaches and you look at their teams, we often don’t think about the support staff,” Nymeyer John said. “And so many conversations are not on the court, and they aren’t in the locker room. It’s when you’re on the table, it’s when you’re broken down and Ms. O’s definitely that—she cared about her athletes.”
Tears were plentiful for all involved, as the woman that so many Mountain View students called ‘grandma’ made sure to get pictures with and swap stories with everyone in attendance.
The woman who found athletic training not by choice, but out of necessity—after two torn ACLs ended dreams of being a professional athlete in the tiny Southern Arizona enclave of Patagonia—will forever have her name associated with the school she helped build.
Oliver struggled to sum up how much the school’s dedication meant, expressing the kind of humility and grace that has built bonds over three decades of work.
“I don’t know what to say; there’s so many people that are worthy of it and it’s hard for me to accept it,” Oliver said. “But, the reason I would accept it is all the amazing students that have come through Mountain View. So, in a way, it’s a tribute to them and all of the great things that they’ve taught me and helped me with.”
Oliver’s list of achievements during her 28-year tenure are just as impressive: winning the Arizona Athletic Trainer of the Year Service Award from the Arizona Athletic Trainers Association in 2011, as well as MUSD’s Teacher of the Year Award.
Oliver was inducted into the Arizona Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame in 2013. She has also been named as one of 2017’s Top 10 teachers in the state by the Arizona Educational Foundation.
For the students
Ask Oliver what she’s most proud of and her laundry list of awards and state and nationwide recognition will never come up.
Rather, what keeps Oliver going strong these days is the same as when she started many years ago: her students.
“No day’s the same,” she said. “I love sports, I love athletes, I love competition. But all of a sudden, I got a love for teaching too. Because originally that was not my plan. But I fell in love with spreading what I was passionate about with my students, and helping them find that passion for themselves too.”
It’s that love and dedication to the art of athletic training that stands out for her pupils, like senior Noah Richards.
Richards, like many in the Mountain View student body, is thrilled that Oliver’s name is forever etched on the training room edifice.
“She is everything to this school,” Richards said. “She’s provided so much of her time to our athletes and our students. Any time anyone needs something she’s always there for us. She’s imprinted in the school, and I’m so glad that the school actually did this for her.”
Caring for her students is nothing new for Oliver’s pupils, as Andrews remembers how much she did to help her through the years.
“She was lots of fun,” Andrews recalled. “She taught me a lot of stuff, helped me get a scholarship at NAU, and even kept in-touch with me when I was at NAU. She let me come home, when I was at NAU, she’d let me help during the wrestling tournaments and make sure that I’m doing what I’m supposed to.”
Oliver wiped away tears as she described how much it meant to share her ceremony with her extended Mountain View family.
“When I saw some of them, that’s when I really started to cry,” Oliver said. “I could tell you stories, and I remember every one of them. The things we did, the things I learned from them, the ups, the downs—all the fun and watching them become adults—and they’re amazing adults.”