LA GRANDE — John Combe, a La Grande licensed massage therapist, was not surprised to receive a phone call from Evanston, Illinois, recently.
What he was not ready for was the message that followed.
Combe was informed he had been selected to receive the American Massage Therapy Association’s Sports Massage Achiever award. The honor is one of the most prestigious of AMTA’s awards.
“I could not believe it. I was speechless,” Combe said.
Angela Barker, president of the AMTA, which is based in Evanston, told Combe that he earned the recognition.
“From your direct work with elite athletes to your many classes to educate massage therapists on sports massage, you are so deserving of this award. … Thank you for all you have done for our profession,” Barker wrote in a letter to Combe.
Massage therapy can help manage a health condition or enhance wellness and involves manipulating the soft tissues of the body. Or, as Combe put it: “It is muscle care.”
The owner of Combe’s Wellness Center, Combe has served as a licensed massage therapist for 20 years. He has received numerous honors during his career, including the American Massage Therapy Association’s 2013 National Meritorious Award for work to advance the American Massage Therapists Association. He also received the Oregon AMTA Meritorious Award in 2010, and twice the Oregon arm of the association named him the state’s licensed massage therapist of the year — in 2005 and 2014.
Combe said these awards recognize leadership in the field of massage therapy, but the AMTA’s Sports Massage Achiever award salutes his application of care. He said it is meaningful to get the salute for this skill set.
Whether talking to colleagues or helping patients, Combe aims to be an educator.
“My passion is to share knowledge,” Combe said. “I want to help people help themselves, that is always a goal.”
The AMTA honor also recognizes Combe’s extensive work in helping Olympic athletes. He worked at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in 2008, 2012 and 2016 and this year at the Olympic Marathon trials. He also has worked as a sports massage therapist at athletic events in which world-class athletes, including distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, compete.
These include the Los Angeles Marathon, for which Combe has been designated as the head massage therapist for elite athletes each year since 2016.
Combe said when working with accomplished athletes, he strives to treat them like he does all of his patients.
“I connect with the person, not the athlete,” Combe said.
The licensed massage therapist said in doing this he never discusses the athlete’s sport or his or her competitions. He said he has found that athletes want to be viewed as people, not performers.
“It takes away a layer and puts them at ease,” Combe said.
Like many of his patients, Combe is a long-distance runner, one who has finished numerous marathons and half marathons.
Those he has completed include the Boston and New York City marathons. Combe said these experiences help him as a licensed massage therapist when providing treatment for runners.
“It improves my insight when working with running-related problems,” said Combe, an ardent fan of road running and track and field.
The La Grande resident described his career as immensely fulfilling, a labor of love.
“I still don’t call it work,” Combe said. “It is a privilege to be able to do this.”