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Miranda Ristau in a field

Miranda Ristau began USD’s physical therapy doctorate program after extraordinary success as a student-athlete. The genesis of her impressive trajectory started in a small town and its high school, continued as an undergraduate at a small university and delivered her to the University of South Dakota for post-graduate preparations.

Miranda Ristau learned about determination and effort during her younger years as an aspiring athlete in a small town in rural South Dakota. She was fortunate to be joined in her ambitious pursuits by numerous other young women who also possessed natural talents and were similarly interested in pushing themselves to greater acheivement. “During the off-seasons my teammates and I often practiced basketball and volleyball, and we practiced with intensity, with a strong desire to keep getting better,” Ristau recalled. “We held ourselves accountable for our mistakes, and we’d aim to make it to the state tournament."

By the time Ristau finished her junior year of high school, she and her high school peers had distinguished themselves. The previous school year had witnessed Ristau and her teammates at Warner High School accomplish a rare double triumph. The community of Warner, South Dakota, comprised of some 460 residents plus farm families living nearby, was smiling and proud. Their high school girls’ varsity teams in volleyball and basketball had won state championships during that school year. No one could remember any other high school accomplishing this remarkable back-to-back feat.

"The close-knit community of Warner showed me how one person fits into a larger group, and that helped develop my compassion for others. That is partly what drew me to health care and physical therapy." -Miranda Ristau

Ristau excelled in sports and helped propel that unusual level of success at Warner High School. “I developed a strong work ethic because I grew up on a farm,” Ristau explained, “and that work ethic motivated me to work hard to be the best student and athlete I could be. Participating in sports at Warner developed my sense of dedication, time management, organizational skills and accountability. Those traits apply to all aspects of my life.”

During Ristau’s senior year in high school, the team duplicated its back-to-back championships from the previous year, again winning state titles in both volleyball and basketball. South Dakota’s Class B champions in girl’s volleyball and basketball often feature outstanding squads that dominate one sport or the other for several years, but never has one high school prevailed over all others in both sports during successive seasons.

As a youngster, Ristau loved watching Northern State University basketball games inside the Barnett Center in nearby Aberdeen. Games there are typically crowded with boisterous fans, as Northern State leads all other Division II universities and colleges almost every single year in attendance at its basketball contests. The game-time environment was especially exciting for a girl who wondered whether or not she was good enough to actually play for the Wolves.

Miranda Ristau playing basketball
Miranda Ristau led Northern State University to a conference basketball title during the 2017-2018 season, and she was named conference player of the year.

And so that’s where Ristau continued her journey after high school. Possessing an athletic scholarship, Ristau made her mark on NSU basketball by her sophomore season. At six feet two inches tall, she was a sturdy and steady force at the post position. She shot for a high percentage and scored a lot of points, including establishing the all-time single season scoring record at NSU. But she also rebounded, defended, blocked shots, showed relentless tenacity and inspired her teammates. Following her senior year she was honored as the conference female basketball player of the year, a substantial tribute considering that Northern State’s conference, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC), is a highly competitive collection of 16 schools from five states in the upper Midwest, including many storied college basketball programs attracting abundant talent. Ristau was also named an Honorable Mention All-American, and was selected as the NSIC female student-athlete of the year for the 2017-2018 school year, a year that was highlighted by Northern State winning the NSIC conference title.

While she competed in basketball, she dedicated herself to her studies, seeking out the sciences and eventually majoring in biology. Three times she was recognized as a member of the NSIC All-Academic team, and during her senior season she was named NCAA Division II Academic All-American of the Year for 2017-2018. Every single semester of her undergraduate career at Northern State she attained a 4.0 grade point average, and she graduated summa cum laude.

USD is the only institution in South Dakota offering a doctorate degree in physical therapy. Our society's need for highly educated physical therapists is projected to grow by 34% over the next decade.

Ristau’s father is a farmer and her mother is a nurse; the daughter’s dream was to one day serve in a health care profession. She contemplated preparing herself for either medical school or for the field of physical therapy. Ristau had admiringly watched therapists aid her recovery from various injuries as an athlete, and those experiences tilted her decision. She applied for and was accepted into USD’s doctorate program in physical therapy, and she became a student in that program in the summer of 2018, only weeks after graduating from Northern State. Her transition from a smaller state institution in northeastern South Dakota to a larger one in the southeast corner of the state was smooth.

“I love USD,” said Ristau. “The teachers and the program’s leadership are outstanding.”

Ristau was interviewed for this article as she started a brief summer break from the doctorate program, following an intense six-week clinical/education experience at Prairie Lakes Hospital in Watertown. It was, she reported, a challenging and beneficial exposure to real-world physical therapy.

Earlier in the school year Ristau learned she had been awarded a prestigious scholarship from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for former NCAA athletes pursuing post-graduate degrees. The $10,000 award came as a surprising, gratifying reminder about why the focus, application and determination she learned as a youngster continues to pay dividends. “I was shocked and humbled to be named a recipient of the scholarship,” she said.

Ristau intends to remain in South Dakota after graduating from the three-year PT doctorate program. “My boyfriend is studying aviation at South Dakota State University,” Ristau noted, “and I’m not certain about which direction I want to go in physical therapy, but right now I’m particularly interested in orthopedics and geriatrics.” Her interest in geriatrics led to an opportunity to work closely with one of the nation’s experts, Becca Jordre, DPT, on issues related to physical fitness and senior citizens.

Miranda Ristau with USD professor Becca Jordre, and PT classmates Alana Hall, Kelsey Knecht and Cayla Hirsh.
Miranda Ristau, far right, joined USD professor Becca Jordre, DPT, and USD physical therapy classmates (left to right) Alana Hall (Brandon, SD), Kelsey Knecht (Brandon, SD) and Cayla Hirsch (Sioux Falls) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to test and assess athletes during the 2019 National Senior Games.

Last summer Ristau and seven of her classmates traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Jordre, a USD PT professor and researcher, to perform physical exams on athletes competing in the National Senior Games. Jordre worked closely with the students as they tested athletes nonstop for hours. She noted Ristu’s relentless work ethic, but she also saw other attributes. “Miranda has a quiet personality, and she never brags about herself, despite her many accomplishments,” Jordre said. “As well as being a hard worker she is a brilliant person. The community that ultimately gains her as a physical therapist will be very fortunate.”

Ristau is proud of her roots, and aware of how her background influences her life. “Growing up in a small town and attending a small high school allowed me to experience how supportive a small town can be,” she said. “I love small towns and the rural countryside. That will play a big role in my future plans because I want to end up in a small town. There is nothing better than a small-town community and the community events that happen in small towns.”