Sophie Pomrehn could sense some apprehension when she’d take a seat next to University of Wisconsin football players at meals during training camp.
Pomrehn joined the program in May as its football performance dietitian, a newly created position. Three months into her job, Pomrehn says she’s still getting to know the Badgers and understands why her presence in the dining hall at Camp Randall Stadium might have caused some trepidation at first.
“It really wasn’t to be the ‘food police,’” Pomrehn said, cringing while using that label. “It’s getting to know them.”
Pomrehn’s addition to UW’s staff is part of a trend in college sports. Ever since the spring of 2014, when the NCAA lifted restrictions on how much and how often Division I programs could feed student-athletes, athletic departments have poured more money and resources toward nutrition.
According to the Collegiate & Sports Dietitians Association, 62 of the 64 athletic programs from the Power Five conferences employ at least one full-time sports dietitian; Boston College and Syracuse are the exceptions.
UW’s performance nutrition staff includes three dietitians, but Pomrehn is the only one devoted to a single sport. The football program had relied heavily on Shaun Snee in recent years to assist with the team’s nutrition program in addition to his role as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
“How can we do everything we can to help (the players)?” UW coach Paul Chryst said of the importance of having a football-only dietitian on staff. “Shaun Snee did a lot of that last year, or the last couple years. But he had a lot on his plate. So it’s been good and you appreciate the athletic department valuing that.
“It’s been good, someone that’s all their focus is making sure that everyone is doing the right thing. Certainly, there’s a broad view: What are we doing for the team? And then there’s the personal component. I think that’s where it really has been helpful and will continue to be.”
Pomrehn, who earned her undergraduate degree from UW in 2014, says she’s seen more and more job postings for football-specific dietitians or nutrition managers over the past year. She was finishing off her first year as the director of sports nutrition for football at Wyoming when the opening at UW popped up last spring, and it didn’t take her long to jump at the opportunity.
“This was definitely a dream job,” Pomrehn said.
Pomrehn hadn’t focused on nutrition in athletics during her time at UW but wanted to explore that field. She spent a summer working at IMG Academy in Florida — with a specific focus on hydration — and her interest was piqued.
“That’s when I saw the elite training environment and really wanted to explore it further,” she said.
After completing her master’s degree at Illinois State in 2016, Pomrehn completed the Sports Nutrition Immersion Program Fellowship at Stanford. She worked with multiple sports there but decided she wanted to pursue a job in football performance and nutrition.
Pomrehn spent a season in Nebraska’s performance nutrition department prior to landing the job at Wyoming.
Upon arriving at UW, Pomrehn met with position groups for informational sessions and tried to set up as many one-to-one meetings as possible to discuss individual goals.
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UW junior tailback Garrett Groshek said this week that Pomrehn has been receptive to suggestions from players.
“She’s been able to put things in motion,” Groshek said.
One change Pomrehn made to UW’s meal plan during training camp was adding a healthy snack to the schedule. A typical day included breakfast being served from 6-7:30 a.m., lunch from noon to 2 p.m. and dinner from 6:45 to 8.
Pomrehn saw an opportunity to add more calories during the afternoon, so she had sandwiches catered in as a grab-and-go option for players to eat during meetings.
She also made some changes to what snacks are offered in the nutrition room that’s located in the back of a lounge next to the football locker room. The wide range of selections include fruit cups, string cheese, hummus and crackers, cereal, oatmeal and tuna packets in a room that also includes a smoothie bar and a Gatorade recovery protein shake dispenser.
“When they were looking for things to eat throughout the day,” Pomrehn said, “I really want to focus on whole foods.”
Senior linebacker Chris Orr and junior tailback Jonathan Taylor both said that Pomrehn, whose typical work day during camp lasted 14 hours, has been particularly helpful in educating them about hydration.
UW has some new tools at its disposal this season to help in that area: a pair of digital scales provided by Gatorade that come with user-friendly software.
The scales measure pre- and post-practice body weight and instantly give players feedback on what percentage of weight they’ve lost as a result of sweating. It provides recommendations of exactly how many ounces of fluid are needed to replenish.
Any player who has lost at least three percent of his body weight has to return that evening to be weighed again. All of the information is calculated in a program that Pomrehn can access via an app on her phone, so she can easily monitor the information and provide reminders when necessary.
“I feel like just having someone here full-time like that and especially someone like Sophie, doing a great job like she is,” Taylor said, “it’s really going to take this team to the next level as far as health-wise.”
Pomrehn said the primary focus during her first few months on the job has been to get players to build good habits when it comes to nutrition. Rather than be demanding, she’s tried to work with players to find compromises: When dealing with a player who hated vegetables, she convinced him to add some to his dinner and suggested he add hot sauce to help with the taste.
“I’m more concerned about lifestyle and the long-term (success) of it compared to just having a quick-fix diet or something that’s going to be really short-term,” she said.
“I really have an investment and want to be a helpful asset. I don’t want to be someone who comes in and starts demanding things.”