During high school, Yasu Nakajima’s coaches saw in him a professional baseball player. As tempting as the prospect was, back and shoulder injuries made it unlikely.

“I just knew that my body didn’t work correctly, especially for the professional level.”

Injuries may have put a damper on that dream, but they shed light on a different path. Yasu, an international student recognized for his academic achievement, will graduate in May with a master of science in athletic training. He’ll also have a nearly perfect GPA as well as experience athletic training with about a dozen sports teams and clinical offices – in California, Illinois and here in Greensboro.

For a young man whose hometown is across the globe in Yamagata, Japan, detours – as he calls them – have been part of the journey.

Perhaps rather than detours, however, it’s crossroads he’s faced. At each one, Yasu has chosen the more challenging path – the one with the greater reward.

When asked by his undergraduate university, Chukyo University, to lead a nationwide meeting of exercise science, athletic training and physical education students, he accepted.

When Shingo Nemoto from Tokyo offered to connect him with athletic training opportunities in America, Yasu decided to take the leap.

And when faced with a daunting language barrier, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

“I spoke so little English, I could barely introduce myself,” Yasu says, remembering the first time he met Kevin Messey at The University of California – San Diego. Messey said he would mentor Yasu and provide him valuable athletic training experience with UCSD teams. But there was one obvious condition: Learn English, and learn it quickly.

“For three months, I spent every day in the library, from early morning to midnight, learning the language.” Throughout his year at UCSD, he became fluent, studied athletic training under the tutelage of Messey, and passed the TOEFL and GRE exams.

It was time for graduate school.

“I didn’t know if I was ready for a master’s degree, but I thought maybe I needed more challenge.”

He presented his mentor with a short list of the best master’s athletic training entry-level programs in the country. Messey pointed to UNCG. “He told me, ‘You should go to this one.’”

“UNCG has so much diversity and opportunities. I want to grow myself more. I feel so fortunate to be here.”

Yasu has one semester left. He’ll be an athletic training student for the UNCG baseball team and complete a capstone project in which he’ll follow an athlete from injury all the way through rehabilitation.

Then, he’ll be at another crossroads.

This time, he will likely return to Japan to establish cross-cultural partnerships for the field. “There is a lot I could bring to athletic training in Japan. I want to be someone who can pull people and resources and fields of expertise together. I could be the guy who helps our profession grow internationally.”

Even with such lofty goals, Yasu distills his purpose down to a very immediate level. He sees his role as athletic trainer as more than helping youths pursue sports.

“I want to instill a lifetime appreciation of physical fitness and teach teachers and parents how to reinforce that for the younger generation.”

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations