The most daunting challenge for many prospective Olympians looms over them off Highway 24. The infamous Incline of Mount Manitou -- once a roadbed for cable cars before it was shut down in 1990 -- is a mile-long path with an average grade of 41% and a rise from 6,600 to 8,600 feet. Though a no trespassing sign marks the property, it remains a proving ground for military personnel, law enforcement officers and the country's largest collection of Olympic hopefuls. "The Incline is the source of local bragging rights," says triathlete Mark Fretta, who holds the ascent's unofficial record of 16 minutes, 42 seconds, "because people from every sport try to conquer it."
This is the definition of upward mobility in Colorado Springs, the center of the Olympic movement in the United States. Located in the heart of town (eight miles east of the Incline) is the U.S. Olympic Training Center, the country's premier multisport facility, which can house 557 athletes and coaches in its two residence halls. Before the Beijing Games more than half of the 600 men and women who will represent the U.S. will have trained at this OTC or its smaller sister center in Chula Vista, Calif. Some, such as wrestlers, weightlifters and women's volleyball players, live in Colorado Springs year-round; others, such as swimmers, cyclists, triathletes and water polo players, come here for shorter training stints.
The USOC opened the Colorado Springs center 30 years ago to keep up with Soviet-bloc nations, whose centralized training venues were boosting their medal counts. The site was ideal because of its low rent, its high altitude (6,000 feet) and the willingness of the conservative-minded city (home of the U.S. Air Force Academy, several defense contractors and the national headquarters of more than 80 evangelical organizations) to embrace a patriotic initiative. Today the OTC has an Olympic-sized pool, a velodrome, an indoor shooting center and two sports centers totaling 113,000 square feet that contain 10 gyms. Nine sports and the USOC itself keep their national headquarters in the complex. The training facilities are all state of the art -- treadmills can reach 20 mph, close to the average speed during a 10.16-second 100-meter dash -- and include video and computer systems that give athletes instant feedback on their training.
Beyond the walls of the complex, athletes receive ample support from the city. Local businesses hire athletes and offer flexible work arrangements. The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs allows athletes to create favorable class schedules. A nearby high school does the same for three teenage Olympic boxing hopefuls. "An athlete can find everything he could possibly want here," says Hunter Kemper, a triathlete who met his volleyball-playing wife, Val, at the OTC in 2000, "even a spouse."