“‘They were looking for a man,’” Cindy Chang, MD, remembered her fellowship director at a major midwestern university telling her in 1993 about a possible job opportunity.

Chang, the only woman in the university’s post-doctoral program and the daughter of Chinese immigrants, was wrapping up her sports medicine fellowship at Ohio State University and hunting for work only to learn she’d been left out.

“There were openings at a university in Florida, but my director only told my male colleagues,” she later said in an interview with UCSF’s sports medicine podcast. “Most coaches had never seen a female physician, much less a female team physician – or an Asian sports medicine physician.”

Her gender and her ethnicity often worked against her early career and there were plenty of other obstacles along the way, Chang said.

Ben Davison, left, receives physical therapy on his arm from Dr. Cindy Cang, right. On a wall in the background are an American flag and a Team USA Olympic flag.
Cindy Chang, MD, works with the USRowing national team rower Ben Davison.

Today, Chang is a UC San Francisco professor emeritus with a joint appointment in the UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Department of Family and Community Medicine. She has become one of the most influential leaders in sports medicine, achieving a series of “firsts.”

Chang was the first female chief medical officer for the U.S. Olympic team – starting with the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and continuing through the 2012 London Olympics – as well as for the first chief medical officer for National Women’s Soccer League. She was also the first female head team physician for an NCAA Division 1 football team (with the California Golden Bears), is a past president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and served on the board of trustees for the American College of Sports Medicine.

Trial by fire

More than 30 years after Chang was passed over because of her gender, less than 1 in 3 members of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine are women. And even fewer are doctors of color. To change this, Chang has made passing on her values and mentoring the next generation of leaders a central focus of her work.

“I want to do as much as I can to train and teach others to carry on core principles,” she said, which inspired her to establish the UCSF Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship.

Ginger Cupit, DO, associate physician at the UCSF Women’s Health Primary Care Clinic, was the first fellow in that program. It started with what Chang describes as a “trial by fire.” Day one of Cupit’s 2020 fellowship began by joining Chang in Bradenton, Florida, to care for Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) players. Cupit helped Chang establish the infection control protocols to allow the bubble of WNBA players, known as the “wubble,” to play games as safely as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are people who thrive under stress, and she’s definitely one of them,” Cupit said of Chang’s calm during that hectic and uncertain time.

Patients feel heard

Over the years, Chang shaped the paths of many young physicians. Marci Goolsby, MD, is one. During an internship after her sophomore year of college, Goolsby had the opportunity to observe Chang work with student-athletes at UC Berkeley.

“It was so impressive to me how she connected with patients and made them feel heard,” Goolsby said. “Her work was impactful, and I thought, ‘This is who I want to be.’”

Cindy Chang wears a stethoscope as she listens to the breathing sounds of Kane Hall, a rower.
Cindy Chang, MD, conducts a physical exam on California Rowing Club rower Kane Hall.

Like Chang, Goolsby carries an impressive list of sports medicine credentials: In 2023, she became the director of sports medicine for the WNBA. Goolsby is also president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and medical director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery.

For Goolsby, Chang provided a vision of the impact she could make with a career in sports medicine.

“It was incredibly important for me to see Dr. Chang not just obtain titles but excel in them. I’ve been so grateful for her support and guidance over the years,” Goolsby said.

A center for female athletes

Though Chang became a professor emeritus in 2023, she keeps a busy schedule and continues to teach and mentor students, along with seeing patients in several locations. The future of sports medicine is always on her mind. She talks excitedly about the recent launch of the UCSF Women’s Sports Medicine Center – the first clinic of its kind in the Bay Area to focus exclusively on female athletes. The center provides comprehensive care to women and girls of all ages and abilities for sports-related issues and injuries.

“This clinic is important to the present and future health of active girls and women, and I am excited to help where I can and see it grow,” Chang said.

Looking back on her career trajectory, Chang chalks up her successes to a combination of factors.

“People ask me about my life, and they think it has been really charmed,” she said. “But I will say it has really been a little bit of luck and a whole lot of hard work, authenticity and passion – and always doing what’s right. When you do things the right way and for the right reasons, it will all fall into place.”

Cindy Chang smiles as she stands among multiple rowing boats.
Cindy Chang, MD, at the T. Gary Rogers Rowing Center in Oakland, California.