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Cards have pioneer in female strength coach Balkovec

The day starts early at the Cardinals' spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla., when the sun has yet to break the horizon and the outfield is still slick with dew. It'll be a while yet before scrambled eggs are available in the clubhouse and hours before the crack of bats or the snap of leather can be heard. That happens after 8 a.m. ET, when upwards of 80 Cardinals Minor League players show up for a day of extended spring training. Baseball activities are early -- games at noon with weight-room workouts afterwards. But Rachel Balkovec has been on-site since 4:45 a.m. She's already lifted, and now, she toes the left-field line, glances at her watch and sprints into the pre-dawn mist. When the players arrive, Balkovec will be showered and ready to run their stretch, because at this men's club, she is the woman in charge.

Change comes slowly to baseball, but the Cardinals proved they're ahead of the curve when, in February, they hired Balkovec to be their Minor League strength and conditioning coordinator. She is the first and only female to hold a position as a full-time strength coach in Major League affiliated baseball.

"I think a lot of teams worry that hiring a woman can create another issue to deal with that is outside of the game," said Oliver Marmol, manager of the State College Spikes, the Cardinals' Class A short season affiliate. "They're afraid something might happen with a player or staff member, that someone might be out of line and say something or be disrespectful. But when you carry yourself the way Rachel does and you're professional about the way you go about your daily work, it's not a problem and it won't be a problem."

Watch Balkovec, who is 26, in the weight room for just a moment, either lifting on her own or working with her players, and it's obvious she knows her stuff. She can power clean more than most of her players and bang out pull-ups with ease. When 15-plus Cardinals come in for a lift, she floats around like a bumble bee from one to the next, spotting their reps, correcting their form and pushing them with just the right amount of sternness.

Balkovec helps players learn English with a Molina poster.

To help ease her transition into the weight room, Balkovec follows the same rules as the players. They can't wear earrings, so neither does she. She wears only Cardinals-issued clothing, despite the fact that it's all men's gear. "It just is what it is," Balkovec said. "I'm not trying to be more of a distraction than I might already be."

Blend in she does, to the point where players and coaches say they find themselves forgetting there's a woman in the room, but her resume stands out. Balkovec earned a degree in exercise science from the University of New Mexico and a Masters in kinesiology from Louisiana State University. While in Baton Rouge, she trained with Olympic lifting guru Gayle Hatch, who calls the city home.

In 2012, Balkovec was hired by the Cardinals on a contract basis to be the strength and conditioning coach for their affiliate in Johnson City, Tenn. While there, she won the Appalachian League's strength coach of the year award. She left the Cardinals to pursue a PHD at Arizona State University, but later decided against it because she thought the four years she would have had to spend in the classroom would be better spent working on the field.

Balkovec spent the summer of 2013 working for Los Tigres Del Licey in the Dominican Republic, then returned to the US to work as a contract strength coach with the White Sox during the Arizona Fall League.

Despite Balkovec's credentials, getting interviews for full-time baseball positions she knew to be open was difficult. While baseball has embraced a handful of female athletic trainers who handle the treatment and rehabilitation of injuries (Sue Falsone was the head athletic trainer for the Dodgers in 2012), it has been slow to embrace women on the strength and conditioning side.

"It's a little less accepted for there to be women in the strength and conditioning field as a whole than it is for there to be women athletic trainers, so it makes sense that a few women have broken through on the athletic training side," Balkovec said. "But I'm not surprised it's been so difficult. This is a male sport, played in a male-dominated environment. Period."

So, Balkovec took matters into her own hands, changing her name from "Rachel" to "Rae" on her resume and sending it out to a number of organizations who had posted strength and conditioning jobs. And the phone started ringing.

One caller said, "Can I speak to Rae?" When Rachel said, "This is she," his surprise was palpable. "There was an awkward pause on the other end of the line and he stuttered and said, 'I'm sorry, I was calling about a job, and I just wanted to make sure I said your name correctly,'" Balkovec explains. "He was just so surprised I was a girl."

The caller excused himself to gather his thoughts and never called again. Balkovec had one organization tell her, flat-out, that they wouldn't hire a woman. With others, she heard through the strength-and-conditioning grapevine that her gender was the reason she wasn't getting interviews. But the Cardinals remembered her skills.

"When Rachel was with Johnson City, we were impressed with her knowledge base and her willingness to be receptive to lots of thoughts and philosophies," said Cardinals head athletic trainer Greg Hauck, who was heavily involved in the hiring process. "She was forward-thinking. She would do the program, but would take things a step further. She started looking at how much the guys were running during games and a lot of other components, and no one had told her to do those things. She added onto her job duties, which was exciting to see."

When the Minor League coordinator position opened up -- the job description includes the implementation of the Cardinals' strength and conditioning program at each of their eight Minor League affiliates -- the Cardinals called. Balkovec interviewed, along with a hundred other applicants. "Rachel stood out amongst them all," said Hauck. "We took the best strength coach we interviewed, male or female."

It didn't hurt that she herself is an athlete. Balkovec was a Division I college catcher, first at Creighton and then at New Mexico, and her experience playing through long seasons gives her insight on what the Cardinals' young players might be going through, physically, emotionally and mentally.

"If they're in a slump or on a roll, or if they're feeling great or if their bodies hurt, those are all things I experienced in my own career," Balkovec said. "And really, it just gives me a little street cred. I think the guys care more that I can throw a baseball than they do about what I can do in the weight room."

As an athlete, Balkovec has always been a take-charge and focused person, with high expectation of other players and higher expectations of herself. "She was always driven and never, ever complained," said Keith Engelkamp, Balkovec's high school softball coach at Skutt Catholic in Omaha. "She would go 100 percent until the coach said it was time to leave." Now, she expects the same of the Cardinals in the weight room, where she is a stickler for technique and form and has a knack for making weight room activities relevant to what is done on the baseball field.

"Rachel doesn't hold anything back just because she's a woman and we're boys," said catcher Alex De Leon. "She really laid down the rules the first day, was like, 'Hey, this is how we're going to get after it. You're going to come in here, get your work done and get out.' No one takes advantage of her in the weight room, because she doesn't allow it."

DeLeon played four years of baseball at the University of Kansas, where Andrea Hudy, considered by many to be the Jayhawks "secret weapon," is one of the most respected strength coaches in college athletics.

"I think a lot of people are skeptical and think they don't want a woman training their men," DeLeon said. "But I feel like Rachel has done a great job with the opportunity she was given, just like Hudy. She got the job and ran with it."

Just as she did in Johnson City, Balkovec has taken it upon herself to expand her job duties in Jupiter. She started an early morning, yoga-like stretching class, which her players have come to call "Brobility." She plays older sister, listening to her players' problems. She plays mom, taking the younger ones food shopping and teaching them to read labels and make better nutritional choices. And she has become a teacher to her Latin players, helping them with their English so they can better assimilate into life in the United States; in the weight room, on the field and in everyday activities.

During Spring Training, Balkovec was frustrated to see players she'd had in Johnson City in 2012 whose English had not improved and pitchers who had been in the Cardinals system for several years who still couldn't say "arm." With the blessing of Yadier Molina, Balkovec blew up a three-foot by two-foot poster of the Cardinals' All-Star catcher, who is Puerto Rican, and remembers the difficulties of learning a new language. She posted it on the white board in the weight room, along with magnetic words that coincide with body parts. Every day, the Latin players, who call Balkovec "Raquel," or the more affectionate "Raquelita," would play "Pin the Tail on Yadi." The activity has continued into extended Spring Training and Balkovec has also created worksheets and tests.

She's also made a concerted effort to improve her own Spanish -- the interface on her iPhone operates in Spanish, and she practices every day -- and can be heard barking cues like "Pecho alto!" (Chest up!) and "Buena postura!" (Good posture!) across the gym.

"Rachel has taken things to another level by building a curriculum around strength and conditioning and what the players need to know for certain exercises," said Marmol, who managed in Johnson City during Balkovec's time there. "Now there's no excuse for the Latin guys to not be able to do an exercise the right way because they didn't understand. Rachel cares about these guys as people, so they take an interest in learning the language and being able to communicate with her and do everything the right way. The effort she's put in to teach them and to learn the language herself has been extraordinary."

Teaching, though, is how Balkovec views her job. At LSU, she worked under legendary strength and conditioning coach Tommy Moffitt, and she is fond of one of his quotes: "Coaching is teaching. Teaching is motivating others to learn."

"I bring that philosophy into the weight room every day," Balkovec said. "Everything I have the players do, I tell them the reason behind it. There's always another cue I can give them, which sometimes turns into them thinking I'm harping on them but it's really just hammering home the principles we want to teach in here. I'm always teaching them something."

In turn, she's building both her credibility and her resume, in hopes of one day landing a job in the big leagues. But for now, she's focused on doing the best job she can do to make the young Cardinals' better. And she has to reconcile the fact that in addition to being a coach and a teacher, she's also something bigger: A pioneer.

"That's weird to think about," Balkovec said. "I still have a lot to prove to everyone in this organization and to everyone in the field, but hopefully I'm making a good first impression. I hope I can do a good enough job here to open the door for other women who want to be involved in strength and conditioning. Maybe some day."

For now, though, she's just taking it one very early day at a time.

Lindsay Berra is a reporter for Follow her on Twitter @lindsayberra.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Yadier Molina