In honor of National Girls & Women in Sports Day, we take a look back at a feature on Bears sports science coordinator and dietician Jennifer Gibson that originally ran in December.
Gibson melding lifelong passions into life's work
Story by Larry Mayer
The path that Jennifer Gibson traversed to become the Bears' sports science coordinator and dietician took her to more than 20 countries all over the world. But her journey began when she was only 14 years old and she received a directive from her father she wasn't expecting.
Growing up in Toronto in a tight-knit blue-collar family, Gibson had not yet reached high school when her dad, Roy Gibson, urged her to decide what career she wanted to pursue. The implication was that her parents would only pay for her to attend college if the degree she'd earn would enable her to land a job.
"Basically, my dad sat me down when I was literally in eighth grade and he said to me, 'You need to figure out what you want to do with your life,'" said Gibson, who is in her sixth season with the Bears. "I'll never forget it. I was 14 years old and it was like, 'You need to start thinking about what you want to do with your life' as I was going into high school."
While it wasn't immediately clear what vocation Gibson wanted to make her life's work, she was hoping to somehow incorporate three things she was extremely passionate about: sports, science and food. Gibson was a three-sport star in high school, excelling in cross country, volleyball and softball. She also enjoyed science classes, especially biology. Nothing, though, trumped her love of food.
Gibson's mother, Gina, is Italian and comes from a large family that has always enjoyed preparing and eating meals together.
"My mom's Italian side dominated our family," Gibson said. "I'm really close with my cousins. We've got an extended family of about 25 people that we're close to. We get together all the time and food is the No. 1 thing. I think we are at restaurants once a year. All of our food was home-cooked meals from scratch. Food was just a big part of my life. I knew I loved food, sports and science."
Career path becomes clear
Much to her delight, Gibson was introduced to a career that would enable her to meld her three passions while attending a lecture at a women's leadership conference as a high school junior. The light bulb illuminated above her head as she listened to a registered dietician discuss nutrition.
"That was when I first heard of the profession of being a registered dietician," Gibson said. "I sat there and I thought to myself, 'Oh my gosh, this is really interesting because I can blend my biology, my love of science and my love of food, and it's a profession where I can actually get a job.'"
“Food was just a big part of my life. I knew I loved food, sports and science.” Jennifer Gibson on her influences on her career choice
Landing her perfect job
Putting her dream of working in sports on hold, Gibson landed a job that focused on nutrition marketing for a public relations company in Toronto. She was there less than a year when she learned that the Canadian sport center was hiring a sport dietician in advance of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
"All of a sudden this position came up and I think it was literally the only full-time sport dietician position in the country," Gibson said. "It was a $15,000 pay cut from what I was making and I already was not making that much.
"But I basically spent every cent that I had to fly out there to interview because this was like my dream job. Everyone thought I was nuts because it was a huge pay cut, and Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in Canada to live. It's like the Palo Alto of Canada. But it was a full-time job, and this just didn't come around. All of the dieticians in the country that were looking at these positions, [but] they didn't even give it a chance because they were like, 'There's no way I'm going to work for peanuts.'"
Gibson was hired by the Canadian Sport Center Pacific in 2006 and spent the next five years working with her native country's top amateur athletes in an array of sports, including snowboarding, skiing, curling, softball, tennis, soccer and Taekwondo. During that time she also earned a master's degree in exercise science from the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
Gibson later moved south of the border in 2011 to become a senior sport dietician and applied physiologist with the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, working primarily with combat athletes. Though it's common for Olympic organizations to hire individuals from other countries—it's virtually the only avenue to find those with Olympic experience—Gibson joked that she had to explain to her family why she was "betraying her country."
As part of her role with both the Canadian and United States Olympic organizations, Gibson traveled to countries such as Australia, Belarus, China, England, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey.
"My husband and I both love traveling the world—the more remote the better," Gibson said. "Our honeymoon was in Malaysia and Thailand, camping and hiking. That's what we love, so for me it was incredible to just have someone basically pay you to go to these countries."
Although Gibson loved traveling to all ends of the earth, it began to wear on her and she sought a more grounded existence.
"It was wonderful, but I was away probably 200 days a year, living out of a suitcase, missing everything, never home," she said. "It just got to a point where I was exhausted and tired and looking for something different, but [I] didn't really know where it was going to end up."
Pace came calling
The NFL wasn't even on Gibson's radar when she received a phone call in 2013 from Bears general manager Ryan Pace, who was then the New Orleans Saints' director of player personnel. Pace, who was competing in Ironman competitions himself, wanted to tap into Gibson's knowledge of nutrition.
"At that point in time, NFL teams weren't really pushing the envelope in regards to nutrition," Pace said. "Other sports around the globe were further ahead in that area. Every team is always looking for that edge, and this was an area I thought we could take advantage of. Nutrition has always been something I have a personal interest in, so it was exciting for me to explore what we could do.
"[Saints general manager] Mickey Loomis and [coach] Sean Payton were also very committed to this effort, so together we took this challenge on. In the research I was doing, Jenn's name kept coming up. I liked that she had worked in all different sports, but specifically combat sports. She'd traveled the globe working in harsh conditions. She worked under pressure and in unique environments, such as trying to get wrestlers to cut weight in Uzbekistan."
Gibson agreed to fly to New Orleans to give a presentation to the Saints. She also went out for dinner with Pace, Loomis and Payton. "The original plan was to talk to her about how we could get our sports science and nutrition program to another level with the Saints," Pace said. "Just brainstorm with her and get some ideas. But halfway through dinner we all knew we needed to hire her."
Reluctant to leave her full-time position and move away from Colorado Springs, Gibson spent two years as a consultant with the Saints, working remotely but also making regular visits to New Orleans for 4-5 days every 3-4 weeks.
“[Saints general manager] Mickey Loomis and [coach] Sean Payton were also very committed to this effort, so together we took this challenge on. In the research I was doing, Jenn’s name kept coming up. Bears general manger Ryan Pace on discovering Jennifer Gibson
Joining the Bears
When Pace was hired as Bears general manager in 2015, he immediately offered Gibson the sports science coordinator/dietician position.
"When I got to Chicago, she was one of the first calls I made," Pace said. "I think at that point she was ready for a new challenge and she committed to coming to the Bears in a full-time role. We love people that are passionate about what they do. It doesn't matter your role within the organization. If you are passionate about your job, it's such a powerful thing that everyone that interacts with you can feel.
"That's Jenn to a 'T.' She loves what she does and goes above and beyond to make sure our players are taken care of from a sports science and nutrition aspect. She's always pushing us to think outside our comfort zones. I think it helps that she's worked in different sports and gets us out of the mindset of 'this is the way it's always done in the NFL.'
"I think she has also adapted to life in the NFL. It's different than working with Olympic athletes. I think our players sense that all she wants is them to perform at their optimal levels. They trust that she can be a valuable asset to their performance, recovery and overall well-being."
Gibson accepted the position primarily due to Pace. "I'll never forget the call," she said. "He said, 'I've got this job and I'm looking for someone to build something here from the ground up.
"Ryan was such a great person to work with. I got to know him as a person and realized that he operated with such great integrity and honesty and, truly, his heart was in the right place when it came to wanting what's best for the athletes. And that's really hard to find sometimes in professional sports.
"I just took a leap of faith and said, 'We'll give this a whirl.' For me, the challenge was really just trying to build something because there was nothing."
Filling a dual role
In her role as a nutritionist with the Bears, Gibson is responsible for all the food that players consume at Halas Hall as well as at hotels on the road, at stadiums before and after games and on airplanes. She devises plans for them to gain or lose weight and helps them recover from injuries by digesting anti-inflammatory foods.
The sport science part of her job includes conducting body composition tests on players and coordinating a GPS system that monitors how far and how fast players run in practice and then communicating that information to coaches and trainers.
"There are a lot of traits she has that have made her successful wherever she has been," Pace said. "Work ethic, passion, ability to communicate with all different types of personalities, continually pushing herself to learn more and her ability to adapt in a high stressed/fast changing environment."
Faith is important
Nothing is more important to Gibson and her husband of 13 years, Jason Oldejans, than their faith. "We're Christians and that's a really important part of our life," she said. "I feel like through all these moves we've made and all these places we've lived and all these stops along the way, we just felt very directed in everything. That's something that's a really important part of my life. My faith is the No. 1 thing in my life—above jobs, above everything."
Faith is what kept Gibson and her husband strong while she tried unsuccessfully to have a baby over a period of seven years. She finally learned she was pregnant during training camp in 2019 and had their first child, a daughter named Joy, on March 5 of this year. "It's awesome," Gibson said of motherhood. "It took us a really long time, so it's amazing. I'm enjoying every minute."
Given what her mother does for a living, you would suspect that Joy will never be allowed to eat anything but fruits, vegetables and lean meats. But that's not the case.
"I have to admit that she's on a very good diet right now," Gibson said with a laugh. "I think everything she's consumed has been organic, which is crazy. But the biggest wish I have for her is I just want her have a healthy relationship with food. Eating first-generation foods—natural foods coming out of the ground—that usually takes care of like 90 percent of her diet.
"But she will have Halloween candy, she will. I'm going to let her have it because a little bit is OK. I just want her to have a really healthy attitude towards food. I don't want her to be one of those kids that doesn't try sugar until she's 21. That will not be her."