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Taping America’s athletes

University of New Mexico assistant athletic trainer Robert Rimorin applies Kinesio tape on Lobo cross country/track athlete Ashlee Smalley, who had recent knee surgery. (dean hanson/journal)
University of New Mexico assistant athletic trainer Robert Rimorin applies Kinesio tape on Lobo cross country/track athlete Ashlee Smalley, who had recent knee surgery. (dean hanson/journal)
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Albuquerque-based Kinesio Holding Co. has never paid an athlete to wear its therapeutic tape. It doesn’t need to.

Serena Williams, David Beckham and Rory McIlroy are just a few of the pros seen wearing the product pioneered by chiropractor and company advisory director Kenzo Kase, a Tokyo native who splits time between Japan and Albuquerque.

And those athletes will have plenty of company over the next two weeks. Kinesio has donated more than 6,000 feet of its Kinesio Tex Gold tape and another 300 pre-cut pieces to the U.S. Olympic Committee for its competition in London.

Kase himself is leaving for London with a small team of Kinesio pros on Tuesday. They have access to the teams’ training centers, where they intend to network with the medical and training personnel.

Kase said he used to be skeptical about donating supplies.

“I’m not a real commercial person and I hear ‘donate tape’?” he said in an incredulous voice. “If it’s that good, use it. Buy it.”

But Kinesio also donated in 2008, and it was those Olympics that helped the decades-old product crack the American mainstream. It helped that the conduit was a tall and toned blonde with a skimpy swimsuit and an Olympic gold medal: American beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh, who competed in Beijing with an eye-catching black swath of Kinesio tape on her shoulder. Walsh’s covered shoulder even prompted a New York Times write-up headlined “A Quirky Athletic Tape Gets Its Olympic Moment.”

Surge in recognition

“It was a perfect storm,” said Adam Halpern, Kinesio’s clinical education manager.

The 2008 Olympics prompted a surge in recognition and popularity. Though the company’s target market has always been physical therapists, athletic trainers and other medical personnel, Halpern said interest spiked among the general public. Average Joes seeing chiropractors or being treated for bum knees started asking if they could have what they saw on TV.

Kinesio’s sales grew 300 percent after Beijing.

Michael Good, international director for Kinesio, will say only that the company’s sales remain “under $100 million” annually.

But Kase said it’s somewhat telling that Kinesio’s headquarters occupy a modest suite in an inconspicuous Northeast Heights office complex.

“If we did more business (maybe) our building is big, like tall -10 stories,” Kase, 70, said. “But happy? Maybe not.”

The story of Kinesio dates back to Kase’s decision to leave his stable but intellectually unsatisfying job with a commercial railroad in Japan about 40 years ago. He headed to Chicago in the early 1970s to attend chiropractic school. Upon graduating, he blanketed the U.S. with his résumé, ultimately landing a job in Las Vegas, N.M.

Having confused the northern New Mexico town for the brightly-lit gambling mecca of the same name, Kase was taken aback. He lasted six months.

Leaving Las Vegas

“I went over there, it’s just so small,” Kase recalls with a laugh, adding that his Tokyo roots made Las Vegas seem even tinier. “All my family get nervous, so I moved to Albuquerque.”

Once in the Duke City, Kase ran his own chiropractic and acupuncture clinic at San Mateo and Silver for about five years. It was what he describes a “peaceful” existence but he feared his mind was becoming complacent. He returned to Japan and had his epiphany.

After using the standard “white tape” to wrap the swollen joints of a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer, the patient called crying that the pain and inflammation had worsened. Blaming it on the pressure, Kase started thinking: Could there be a product that would create what he describes as “negative pressure” under the skin, thus creating space for inflammation to clear or drain more freely?

He officially founded the Kinesio Taping Method in 1979 and helped engineer the tape to go with it. Good said the product first hit the market in Japan in the 1980s, going “big, big, big” in that country by the latter part of the decade. Kinesio expanded into the U.S. by setting up an Albuquerque operation in the mid-1990s.

Worldwide use

The efficacy of the tape is just as dependent on the application as it is on the product, Halpern said. More than 50,000 people worldwide have received instruction in the method. That includes professionals who work with the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors of the NBA and collegiate trainers from the Southeastern Athletic Conference and the University of New Mexico.

It’s certainly been a big hit with the Lobos.

“I do not know of a sport that does not use Kinesio tape,” said UNM’s head athletic trainer David Binder, adding that Kinesio tape has limited the amount of anti-inflammatory medications Lobo athletes are taking.

Nate Burney, the trainer for the Lobo men’s basketball team, said he uses it to treat back spasms and ankle injuries. Baseball trainer Robert Rimorin reported using it on Lobo All-American D.J. Peterson after he took a pitch to the wrist.

“We had it on to help with bruising and swelling and (the next day) it didn’t even look like he was hurt,” Rimorin said.

An analysis of Kinesio-related research published February in the journal Sports Medicine concluded there was “little quality evidence to support the use of (Kinesio) over other types of elastic taping” for sports injuries, but that there may be some benefits and that anecdotal support of the product warrants additional experimental study.

Kinesio has its doubters, but Binder said he’s seeing more and more colleges using it.

Only time will tell if the London Games will prompt another surge.

Good estimated 50 countries will employ the Kinesio Taping Method during the Games. And though Kinesio’s success has bred competitors, Good said Kinesio remains the dominant brand.

“You’re probably looking at 80 to 90 percent of whatever you’re going to see out there is Kinesio,” he said. “It’s our tape.”

What is Kinesio?

Kinesio claims its therapeutic tape works by lifting the skin, thus spurring the body’s natural healing process while offering stability and full range of motion.

Kinesio Tex Gold tape is latex-free, water-resistant and boasts an elasticity similar to human skin. It comes in beige, black and what Kase calls “shocking pink” and “shocking blue.”

The tape’s efficacy is tied directly to the application method, according to the company. Becoming a Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioner involves a series of three, 8-hour courses.

The company’s website says the Kinesio Taping Method can be used to treat neurological, orthopedic, neuromuscular and medical conditions.

In a sports context, it can treat something like a sprain or relieve inflammation and pain, according to Adam Halpern, Kinesio’s clinical education manager.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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