St. Edmond grad Ahlers works as nutrition intern with Cyclone football program during historic season
AMES — It didn’t take long for Katie Ahlers to go from intimidated to inspired as a member of the Iowa State University football family.
Ahlers, a 2016 St. Edmond graduate, has been a performance nutrition student intern with the ISU athletic department and, more specifically, head coach Matt Campbell’s program for the last calendar year. She saw the inner workings of Iowa State’s most successful season on the gridiron in school history, while gaining invaluable experience as she finishes up a 2021 Bachelor’s Degree in Dietetics.
The 22-year-old Ahlers landed her position last winter. After spending some time with the Olympic sports at ISU, she shifted to football in January of 2020.
“I had no idea what to expect walking into this job — especially after COVID hit,” Ahlers said. “At first, it was really overwhelming. I mean, you walk into this program with this high-caliber staff that has such a reputation of success, and it’s scary.
“Then, I started to meet the players, the coaches, the staff — and I’ll tell you what, every single person in this program is just incredible. Everyone is so kind and helpful, and the leadership is phenomenal all across the board. It’s really an awesome thing when you feel supported by the people around you, comfortable asking for help, and motivated by the work ethic of everyone in the facility — which is exactly how I feel at work every day.”
Ahlers’ interest in performance nutrition initially sparked a conversation with her cousin, who works for ISU athletics. She was in the early stages of her time with the football team when the global pandemic turned everything upside down last March.
“I was really bummed, but just kept reaching out to the dietitian over quarantine about ways that I could stay involved and help,” said Ahlers, who works 20 hours a week while school is in session and 40 during breaks. “When we started to get players back, I was able to come back in and help with fueling throughout the summer. This carried over to the school year and the season, and I got to spend a lot of time in the facility learning about what it takes to be a Sports Dietitian and working with the athletes to get them what they needed throughout such a crazy time.
“I’ve always loved sports. I grew up watching hockey with my dad, watching my brother, Ben, play sports, and playing them myself. Ever since I decided to major in Dietetics, I knew that I wanted to work with athletes. It was a little out of my comfort zone to reach out and try to get a spot working in an area in which I had no experience, but I knew that it was something I really wanted, and I’m so grateful that I did. This is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve met some of the greatest people I know through it.”
With Campbell’s program, Ahlers spends time during the week preparing meals and learning about the ins and outs of proper nutrition for athletes. Rachel Voet is ISU’s Director of Football Nutrition.
“We try to always be around to help the dietitian with answering any questions the athletes may have about their fueling needs for the day or that meal as well as checking in with them about hydration, weight, and any other aspect of their performance that we may be able to help with,” Ahlers said. “We’ll set up pre-fuel for the guys before practice, and make sure that they fuel up before they get to work. During practice, we bounce around the position groups with fluids, just making sure that everybody is staying hydrated, fueled, and feeling good.”
The pressure of the job intensifies on game day, which Ahlers calls, “crazy, but fun.”
“We get there a couple hours before the game to make sure that pre-fuel is set up and all of the fluids and food we need on the sidelines is all set up,” Ahlers said. “Once the players get to the facility, we make sure that they’re all feeling good and try to make sure that they’re all getting exactly what they need before getting on the field. During halftime, we check in again and refuel for the second half.
“Throughout the game, we are on the sidelines pushing fluids and watching for any cramping or fatigue and doing what we can to stop it from happening. It really all goes by in the blink of an eye — but game day, especially at Jack Trice (Stadium), is incredible. The atmosphere is unmatched.”
Iowa State went 9-3 this season, winning both the Big 12 regular-season championship and the Fiesta Bowl. The Cyclones finished the year ranked in the Top-10 nationally, and even more importantly, didn’t have a single COVID-related shutdown throughout the course of the year.
“For the most part, it just comes down to the commitment to the team,” Ahlers said. “Everyone wore their masks, they washed their hands, and they stayed in the football bubble as much as they possibly could. Obviously, there was testing, just like there was in every program. But testing doesn’t matter if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to the rest of the time — and the people here did a great job of doing everything right so that we could have as ‘normal’ of a season as possible.
“I think what makes Iowa State football so special is the commitment that the people in this program have to each other and to themselves. This was a really hard year for everyone in a lot of ways. Still, everyone showed up every day and they went to work. In the end, that commitment paid off. Like I said before, they’re just really amazing people. They care about each other, on and off the field, they care about the team, and they care about being not only the best athletes, but the best people they can be.”
Ahlers is planning on obtaining a Master’s Degree in Dietetics, with the goal of someday becoming director of performance nutrition for a collegiate program while also teaching a nutrition course.
“I’ve spent the majority of my time working with football so that’s definitely one of my top choices, but I would also love to get to work with other sports and learn more about the fueling needs of athletes in different settings,” Ahlers said. “I’m trying to keep my options open, because there are still a lot of career paths in dietetics that I haven’t had the opportunity to experience yet. So that’s something I’m really looking forward to as well.”
Ahlers continues to evolve as both a student and as a person. She credits the football program for helping her find purpose and, ultimately, professional direction.
“It’s really hard to say what the biggest thing I learned was (from being involved in the 2020 football season), because I learn 10 new things every day,” Ahlers said. “But if I had to pick one, I think about how important it is to surround yourself with people who make you a better person. I have learned so much about what it takes to be a great leader, boss, employee, and person in this program.
“I’ve also realized how fun work can be. Half the time, I don’t really feel like I’m at work at all, because I just love what I’m doing and having so much fun. It’s a really special place.”