Dr. Mario Ciocca, director of sports medicine at UNC, was awarded the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award this year, along with seven other faculty members deemed exemplary of the award’s recognitions.
The prestigious distinction for faculty and staff is awarded for "unusual, meritorious or superior contributions." Six people are usually given the award, but because of the unprecedented issues brought about by COVID-19, two more winners than usual were named.
Ciocca started his journey at UNC in 1996 as part of his studies in medicine. After receiving his bachelor's degree in biochemical engineering from Columbia University, Ciocca was sure he wanted to follow a career in sports medicine.
“I knew I wanted to do sports medicine, but I didn’t know where or how,” he said.
Ciocca said he was fortunate to get an opportunity at UNC for his fellowship, where he was subsequently offered a job. He was later given the position of director of sports medicine in 2010.
COVID-19 presented Ciocca with unprecedented circumstances to deal with in a leadership position. He mentioned learning to approach the situation on a day-to-day basis given how quickly everything was changing. Being available to his staff and effectively communicating were key to success.
His colleague Scott Oliaro, an athletic trainer at UNC, echoed this sentiment. He said Ciocca was always available to his staff as they dealt with the new questions of the pandemic.
Ciocca particularly noted the challenges that indoor sports such as wrestling and basketball posed.
“As we got through the fall, things were going OK, but we're dealing mainly with outdoor sports," he said. "As the winter came, we started thinking, 'How do you wrestle someone? How is that not close contact?'”
With the basketball team, one worry was having to rule the whole team out if a single person tested positive. Once “close contact” was officially defined as lasting more than 15 minutes with a distance of fewer than 6 feet, Ciocca said wearable technology was a game-changer.
“The team would wear them throughout the whole day and during training," Ciocca said. "If one person tested positive, we were able to see the device indicating they had been in contact with this other person for more than 15 minutes.”
This way, the team was better able to contact trace individuals who could be at high risk.
Not only did he help make sure UNC athletes were able to play their seasons to the best of their abilities, but Ciocca also served on the ACC COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group — a panel of representatives from each university to come up with conferencewide standards and regulations. These efforts ensured that measures put out by the association were attainable and safe for athletes from other schools as well.
When asked to describe Ciocca, Oliaro chose the word "committed."
“When he takes on something, it’s going to be done to the fullest extent that it should be,” he said.
Senior Associate Athletic Director Dwight Hollier gave a similar answer.
“I would say steady," Hollier said. "The last 18 months were challenging times and through that, with the challenges we faced his leadership was steady … his leadership was needed in those times.”
Ciocca said he felt shocked when he received the award.
“It’s a great honor to be recognized not only with the people who were awarded this year, but also the people in the past who have won it,” he said.
He also said that it was not something he was able to do alone.
“The whole sports medicine staff has been working not only with COVID but with everything else they normally have to deal with," he said. "It’s been a lot of teamwork from the whole department that allowed this to happen this year.”