The Sierra Nevada provides a breathtaking backdrop—and many high-altituderigors—for the best distance runners in the U.S.
This is an article from the March 3, 2008 issue
IT IS a mecca forskiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers, yet the most gifted athletes in townchoose to race up the hills, not down them. Set in the shadow of 11,053-footMammoth Mountain in the Sierra Nevada range, the town of Mammoth Lakes(altitude 7,800 feet) has a year-round population of 7,406 that includes adozen members from Team USA. The stars in that group—among them 2004 Olympicmarathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi and bronze medalist Deena Kastor;Olympic marathon trials winner Ryan Hall; his wife, Sara, a top 1,500- and5,000-meter runner; and 2004 Olympic marathoner Jen Rhines—have revived U.S.distance running.
Their journey toMammoth Lakes began nearly a decade ago. At the time the state of U.S. distancerunning "was dire," says Terrence Mahon, the group's coach and Rhines'shusband. In 2000 performances were so dismal that the U.S. qualified only oneman and one woman for the Sydney Olympic marathon. Christine Clark, a37-year-old Alaskan pathologist who did most of her training on a treadmill,placed 19th at those Games, and Rod DeHaven, a part-time computer programmer,finished 69th.
Within monthsofficials from USA Track and Field lured Joe Vigil, who had coached 425All-Americas at tiny Adams State in Alamosa, Colo., out of retirement torecruit and lead the nation's top talent. "We do everything wrong,"says Vigil in explaining America's struggle to develop distance runners."We ride everywhere. We eat processed foods. We train on campuses so we'redistracted. You have to get away from artificial stimuli. Great things havebeen done by people who isolate themselves."
Vigil envisioneda monastic immersion in the sport and picked Mammoth Lakes, five hours north ofLos Angeles and three hours south of Reno, as his training center. "Onceyou're there, you're not leaving," says Mahon, who replaced Vigil in 2004.The soaring peaks, river-cut canyons, and pine and aspen forest make Mammothperhaps the most beautiful Olympic training spot in the country.
For Ryan Hall themost striking sight is the jagged mountains of the Minarets—"so sharp theylook like knives," he says—where he puts in his toughest miles. "Onceyou climb to 9,000 [feet] and your heart rate goes up, it never goes backdown," says Mahon. "It gets your lungs out of your mouth pretty quick.You think you're at a five-minute pace, but your watch says seven. It's tortureon your brain and steels you for anything."
Three weeksbefore Hall blew away the field at the Olympic trials in New York lastNovember, he ran a simulated marathon in Mammoth Lakes. "I've never feltthat kind of pain," says Hall. "The hills in Central Park felt flat bycomparison." Before winning their Olympic medals in 2004, Keflezighi andKastor trained for Athens's heat by running the roads and trails of Mammoth inlong sleeves and pants. When they returned from the Games, the townspeoplethrew them a parade. The show of support didn't stop there. In 2005, forexample, the local hospital allowed Kastor to use its underwater treadmill toaid in her recovery from a foot injury. "Everyone in Mammoth is willing tohelp us," she says.
Not everyone.Last March, not long after the Halls had moved into the mobile home in whichthey live, they were awakened by a crunching sound. Ryan looked outside and sawa bear chewing the siding. He tried to shoo the grizzly away by pelting it withrocks and poking it with a curtain rod, but the creature lingered before movingalong on its own time. "They're home and we're just visiting," Ryansays of an area where deer, rabbits, bears and mountain lions easily outnumberelite runners. "Sometimes you're a small part of something muchbigger." Spoken like an Olympian.
The proving ground for Olympic hopefuls in women's gymnastics is anot-so-laid-back ranch located deep within a national forest
HEAD NORTH onI-45 and watch the Houston skyline disappear in the rearview mirror. About 90minutes and half a dozen turns later, you're hanging on as your vehicle bouncesalong a rocky dirt road to a ranch--gymnastics factory in the middle of SamHouston National Forest. It is here, at Karolyi's World of Gymnastics, that themost elfin and resolute U.S. Olympians are strained, stretched and selected forservice.
Every month 20 to25 girls leave their home gyms—reigning world all-around champion Shawn Johnsontravels south from West Des Moines, Iowa; other members of last year'sgold-medal-winning world championship team come in from Indianapolis, Orlandoand other gyms in Texas—for four-to-five-day testing camps, supervised bynational team coordinator Martha Karolyi. Her husband, Bela, molder of Olympicchampions such as Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, built the gym and ranchin 1984, three years after he and Martha defected from Romania. In part throughthe force of Bela's personality, the gym has become the centerpiece of what isone of the strongest women's gymnastics programs in the world.
"For quitesome time the most advanced gymnastics countries were taking a centralizedapproach to training," says Bela. "We were not, and it showed."After USA Gymnastics designated his gym as the national team's officialtraining center in 2001, Karolyi started running an especially rigorous seriesof drills to increase strength, flexibility and stamina. Among them: 10consecutive handstand presses, a handstand hold for 60 seconds, a timed ropeclimb with outstretched legs and pointed toes and 20 leg lifts from a hangingposition, touching toes to fingertips. He also staged mock competitions thatmimicked world and Olympic events in every detail, down to the gymnasts' marchinto the room and the acknowledgment of the judges.
Though gymnastsimproved, many personal coaches squawked about the camps, in part because ofBela's domineering style. In 2001 Bela ceded the reins to Martha, who beganrunning the camps using her husband's prototype while also reaching out to thepersonal coaches for ideas. (Bela still insists that the magnet on theKarolyis' refrigerator that reads EVERYBODY IS ENTITLED TO MY OPINION actuallybelongs to Martha.)
Coaches havesince warmed to the camps, which are both demanding and inspiring. A walk offame at the ranch shows the names of U.S. gymnastics Olympians and world teammembers. Because gymnasts live at the ranch during the camps, the gatheringsbuild camaraderie. There are lighter moments: "We'll be working out, andsuddenly a horse will be looking in the window," says Samantha Peszek, a2007 world team member. Stroll around the 2,000-acre ranch, which has turkeys,antelopes, emus and other creatures, and you might find Bela talking in hisfractured English to an 18 months pregnant camel, "When you going to giveup the baby, Elvira? We waiting on you."
There will belittle joking around come summer. Though Olympic trials will be held inPhiladelphia in June, Martha will have a say in the final team selections aftera camp at the ranch starting on July 16. No spectators will be allowed, and thegymnasts will be seeking the approval of only one judge. "It's one kind ofpressure to perform your best routines in front of 10,000 people," says the16-year-old Johnson, "but it's a different pressure when you have toperform them in front of Martha."
At the USOC's warm-weather training center, bikers careen down a new coursetailor-made for Beijing training
IN THE race formedal supremacy this summer the U.S. has tried to stave off the competition bycreating a world-class practice course at the Olympic Training Center in ChulaVista for riders in bicycle motocross (BMX). That event makes its Olympic debutin Beijing and features races among eight riders who bump, jump and knockelbows for position on a quarter-mile rolling, banked dirt track.
Since Americansoften dominate the sport, the Chinese designed and began their Olympic trainingon a so-called supercross course, far gnarlier than ones on the internationalcircuit. The start hill, a six- to 12-foot drop on a regular BMX track, will be30 feet high in Beijing. Speeds will reach 40 mph at the bottom of the course,almost twice as fast as on a more traditional layout. "It'sjaw-dropping," says U.S. rider Donny Robinson, a 2006 world champion, whowon the Beijing test event last August. "Unless you know what you're doing,you're seriously out of your element."
After seeing theOlympic course, the USOC and USA Cycling constructed a $500,000 run withidentical specs at the Chula Vista center, a 150-acre site just south of SanDiego that is a training ground for archers, canoeists, softball players, trackand field athletes, and many others. Though BMXers have competed on temporarysupercross tracks over the years, the Chula Vista course, which opened inJanuary, is one of three permanent ones in the world.
The U.S. ridersappreciate the help to prepare for some wild rides in Beijing. "On aregular BMX course, you can sort of roll through a jump," says KyleBennett, the current world No. 1. "With [the Olympic course], you'recommitted to [flying off] the jump because of the height and speed. Fans willtrip out when they see it."
A high-altitude campus born of cold war rivalry will produce more than half ofthis year's U.S. team members
THE MOST dauntingchallenge for many prospective Olympians looms over them off Highway 24. Theinfamous Incline of Mount Manitou—once a roadbed for cable cars before it wasshut down in 1990—is a mile-long path with an average grade of 41% and a risefrom 6,600 to 8,600 feet. Though a NO TRESPASSING sign marks the property, itremains a proving ground for military personnel, law enforcement officers andthe country's largest collection of Olympic hopefuls. "The Incline is thesource of local bragging rights," says triathlete Mark Fretta, who holdsthe ascent's unofficial record of 16 minutes, 42 seconds, "because peoplefrom every sport try to conquer it."
This is thedefinition of upward mobility in Colorado Springs, the center of the Olympicmovement in the United States. Located in the heart of town (eight miles eastof the Incline) is the U.S. Olympic Training Center, the country's premiermultisport facility, which can house 557 athletes and coaches in its tworesidence halls. Before the Beijing Games more than half of the 600 men andwomen who will represent the U.S. will have trained at this OTC or its smallersister center in Chula Vista, Calif. Some, such as wrestlers, weightlifters andwomen's volleyball players, live in Colorado Springs year-round; others, suchas swimmers, cyclists, triathletes and water polo players, come here forshorter training stints.
The USOC openedthe Colorado Springs center 30 years ago to keep up with Soviet-bloc nations,whose centralized training venues were boosting their medal counts. The sitewas ideal because of its low rent, its high altitude (6,000 feet) and thewillingness of the conservative-minded city (home of the U.S. Air ForceAcademy, several defense contractors and the national headquarters of more than80 evangelical organizations) to embrace a patriotic initiative. Today the OTChas an Olympic-sized pool, a velodrome, an indoor shooting center and twosports centers totaling 113,000 square feet that contain 10 gyms. Nine sportsand the USOC itself keep their national headquarters in the complex. Thetraining facilities are all state of the art—treadmills can reach 20 mph, closeto the average speed during a 10.16-second 100-meter dash—and include video andcomputer systems that give athletes instant feedback on their training.
Beyond the wallsof the complex, athletes receive ample support from the city. Local businesseshire athletes and offer flexible work arrangements. The University of Coloradoat Colorado Springs allows athletes to create favorable class schedules. Anearby high school does the same for three teenage Olympic boxing hopefuls."An athlete can find everything he could possibly want here," saysHunter Kemper, a triathlete who met his volleyball-playing wife, Val, at theOTC in 2000, "even a spouse."
An Ivy League college town with a hallowed rowing tradition has kept theOlympic squad afloat
SEEKING MORE thanjust strokes of luck, the U.S. rowing team presents its shells annually forinvocation. Father Tom Mullelly, chaplain of the Aquinas Institute at PrincetonUniversity, sprinkles the boats with symbolic water and offers benediction. Thewater has probably dripped in from the Delaware River, not the holy RiverJordan, as the U.S. rowers claim, but ever since the men's eights won threeconsecutive golds at the worlds from 1997 to '99, they've never let the troughget in the way of a good story. "At least some molecules come from the HolyLand," Mullelly says with a smile.
Viewed soaffectionately by the athletes that they refer to him as F.T., Mullelly is justone reason U.S. rowers can count their blessings. Few towns have wrapped theirarms around a team as warmly as Princeton has, where the national squad trainson Lake Carnegie and Lake Mercer year-round.
The town becamethe mecca of U.S. rowing in the early 1900s after a Princeton alum who waspainting Andrew Carnegie's portrait persuaded the steel magnate to build a lakefor the Tigers rowing team. In 1998 a local group called the Princeton NationalRowing Association opened a world-class boathouse and training center (sinceexpanded) on Lake Mercer in nearby West Windsor, N.J., that attracted the U.S.team and made the area even more of a hub of national events at the age-group,masters and World Cup levels; this year's U.S. Olympic trials will be held onLake Mercer beginning in April. Meanwhile the university keeps contributingtalent: At the 2007 world championships the U.S. team had seven Princeton alums(and Canada and Australia each had one).
Rowers haveenjoyed tremendous local support. Since arriving in 1995, Mullelly has housedmore than 100 of them at Aquinas, up to 20 at once. Rowers have repaid him byputting a new roof on the institute's garage and doing charitable work such aspassing out sandwiches in shelters. When Aquil Abdullah and Henry Nuzum rowedin the U.S. men's pair at the Athens Olympics, FATHER TOM was emblazoned ontheir bow. Ten to 15 families in the area have national-team rowers living withthem rent-free.
Princetonianspitch in in other ways as well. A local doctor, chiropractor, weight trainerand physical therapist offer rowers deep discounts. So does the restaurantPizza Star, which used to serve team members all they can eat for $5. On thewall of the eatery are oars shaped like pizza paddles in U.S. and Italiancolors, team photos of U.S. squads and a stern-looking painting of hyperintenseU.S. men's coach Mike Teti.
As a worldchampion and Olympic silver medalist, Anna Mickelson, 27, is among the team'smost decorated—and compensated—rowers. Last year she made $27,000 off stipendsand bonuses from the USOC and her sport's national governing body. She haslived with three host families over seven years and worked jobs with flexiblehours for companies based in or near Princeton. "The body and mind canhandle the rowing life," she says, "but the best rower in the worldwould be better off financially doing something else. Thank goodness for thepeople of Princeton."
A football school also boasts some of the best swimmers in the country—mostnotably the sport's reigning king
MICHAEL PHELPS isputting up a good fight. With his body upright and arms at his side, he kicksfrenetically, trying to avoid touching the bottom of the pool. More than 30seconds pass before he gives in and ends this leg-strengthening drill.Afterward, Phelps does strokes with large paddles strapped onto his hands, thenswims the butterfly without kicking his legs. The 22-year-old, who won six goldmedals at the 2004 Olympics and seven at the '07 world championships, embracesthe self-imposed resistance since the competition doesn't always provide muchof a challenge.
Phelps isn't theonly decorated swimmer at the pool in Ann Arbor, where he works as a volunteerassistant for Michigan's swim team and trains separately with the independentClub Wolverine. Olympians Erik Vendt, Kaitlin Sandeno and Peter Vanderkaay haveseven Olympic medals among them, and as many as five other Ann Arbor swimmerscould be Beijing-bound. "It's an eight-cylinder engine at Michigan,"says Jon Urbanchek, the Wolverines' coach from 1982 to 2004. "When onedoesn't function, the car is going to cough. We work all eight cylindersefficiently. It's an environment with a common goal."
Urbanchek upheldthe tradition of the men's program, which has won 11 NCAA team championshipsand 156 individual titles, until Bob Bowman, Phelps's personal coach, took overa few months before the Athens Olympics. The lure for Bowman was the program'sunusually farsighted goal of preparing swimmers for the Olympics and itshistory of recruiting individual medley and distance swimmers, often at theexpense of sprinters who can pile up points in dual meets and the NCAAs."Jon really nourished a culture of Olympic excellence that you don't findat many universities," Bowman says. When U.S. men won gold in the 4 √ó200-meter freestyle relay at the 2004 Games, three of the swimmers were Phelps,Vanderkaay and Club Wolverine alum Klete Keller.
Though the poolat Ann Arbor's Canham Natatorium isn't especially fast, the Olympic pride inthe two-decade-old facility is palpable. The hallway of the back entrance islined with glass-enclosed cases holding 72 swim caps from 11 countries, eachcap with the name and flag of a Wolverines swimmer or diver who competed at theGames. On the far wall opposite Bowman's office, a clock located below largeOlympic rings counts down the time until the opening ceremonies in Beijing onAug. 8. The fractions of a second are extended to eight decimal places.
When Urbanchekrecommended Bowman as his replacement, Phelps willingly came along from theirBaltimore club. "I would have followed Bob to Siberia," he says.Fortunately Ann Arbor is closer and sometimes even warmer. Phelps bought afour-story town house near the natatorium, became a regular at Wolverinesfootball games and began taking courses in kinesiology, something he has nowput on hold until after Beijing.
Even under ahooded jacket in winter, he is easily spotted by passersby, and local eateriesknow to expect his order for a double breakfast. As much as Phelps tries toremain low-key, his teammates are particularly aware of his presence."Think having the greatest swimmer in the world after your butt each daydoesn't make you faster?" says Vendt.
The top competitors in America's backyard game play in a building thatjuxtaposes shuttlecock-smashing with Thai cooking and catalog printing
"TODAY WEplay for lobster," shouts Don Chew, the perpetually caffeinated 66-year-oldowner and architect of the Orange County Badminton Club. "First point getsthe tail." On Court 1, Tony Gunawan, a former Olympic and world championfrom Indonesia, is coaching the team of Howard Bach and Bob (Khan) Malaythong;and on Court 2, Eva Lee is hitting with Mesinee (May) Mangkalakiri. These fourplayers (born in Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong and the U.S., respectively), who willlikely make up the U.S. Olympic badminton team in Beijing, train at thecountry's quirkiest center of sporting excellence.
The77,000-square-foot building, located in a nondescript stretch of gas stationsand parking lots two miles from Angel Stadium, contains three vastly differententerprises. At one end, picture windows look onto the 12 badminton courts fromBebe's Cafe, Chew's 96-seat Thai restaurant, named after his daughter. Beyondthe cement wall at the other side of the courts hum the presses of Chew'sprinting business, which churn out splashy catalogs for customers such as JennyCraig, Kawasaki and Isuzu. "This place is the American dream," Chewsays proudly, "times three."
A native ofBangkok, Chew began playing badminton when he was seven. "I was a badkid," he says. "Badminton saved me, made me believe in somethingbetter." He played pro briefly, and when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1972with his wife, Kim, also a badminton player, he vowed to grow the sport in hisnew country. In 1996, having expanded his printing business, Chew opened hiscomplex in Orange. With features that include glare-free lights, a springybeachwood floor and an air-circulation system designed not to affect flyingbirdies, "this is easily the most modern [badminton] facility in theworld," says Gunawan.
It's no surprisethat top players have migrated here. In addition to the $9,000 trainingstipends the players receive annually from the USOC, Chew generously donatesequipment, plane tickets and hotel rooms for international events. "All wedo is ask," says Lee, a triple gold medalist last summer at the Pan AmGames in Rio. That the players remain anonymous even among the locals, however,reflects badminton's continuing obscurity as a serious sport. "Tell peoplewhat we do for a living," Lee says, "and they say, 'You playbackgammon?'"
The players inOrange see a brighter future. In 2005 Gunawan unretired and paired with Bach.No U.S. individual or team had reached even the quarterfinals of a worldchampionship before Gunawan and Bach, seeded 13th, won that year's world title.Since citizenship rules for Olympic participation are stricter, Gunawan, whoreceived a green card in 2006, will not compete in Beijing. Like Chew, though,he envisions the day when U.S. badminton can join the world's elite. "InIndonesia," he says, "if someone insists you cannot do something, youdon't really question it. Here, the word impossible is open tointerpretation."
A military base with a small-town feel is home to sharpshooters who train toserve their country on the sports field and beyond
JUST OFF U.S. 27,five miles east of the Georgia-Alabama border, lies a 182,000-acreself-contained slice of Pleasantville, where moms wait on porches behind whitepicket fences for school buses to drop off their kids. This picturesquecommunity of about 35,000 is in many ways a typical small town, with a grocerystore, a gas station and a thrift shop, but the similarities go only so far.Fort Benning, located within Columbus, Ga., is the nation's second-largest Armypost. About 18% of the city's residents live on post, and among the soldiersare 32 shotgun, rifle and pistol shooters—men and women, ages 19 to 45—who arepart of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. They are the most eagle-eyed andgranite-nerved of all prospective Olympians.
The team membersare held back from combat to bring the military glory through sports. Since theunit was formed in 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower to improve the Army'sshooting proficiency, its members have won 40 world and 22 Olympic medals.Physical training starts at 8 a.m., when shot and rifle teams begin theirworkout with squats and crunches. They wear identical Army T-shirts, blackshorts and sneakers. Soon, across seven ranges that cover 260 acres, a crackleof gunshots breaks the morning calm and the scent of damp grass carries a hintof what smells like freshly lit matches. Most of the athletes come from huntingbackgrounds—handling guns since they were seven or eight—and were recruited bythe Army just to be in the unit. "When I first started shooting as a kid, Itold my dad I wanted to go to the Olympics," says Vincent Hancock, who wonthe world skeet title in 2005 at age 16. "And I've been shooting for thatever since."
There is sometime to kick back—say, during a trip to the Four Winds restaurant, which servesa one-pound Sniper Burger—but not for slacking off. The stakes for poorperformance can be high. Those at the bottom, about 20% each year, can bedropped from the program, placed into what the shooters call Big Army and arelikely to be sent abroad.
Yet fewsoldier-athletes fear assignment. Rob Harbison, now a lieutenant colonel, leftduring the 1991 national championships when he was called to join operationDesert Storm in Kuwait. "We're soldiers first," says Harbison, a '96Olympian in air rifle. "It was what I signed up to do." It is a typicaldisplay of frankness in a place where you can always find straightshooters.
Five other cities Olympians are calling home
AUSTIN • Swimming
EDDIE REESE, the U.S. Olympic men's swim coach, has guided the men's team atTexas since 1978. World-record holders in three 100-meter events—24-year-oldAaron Peirsol (backstroke), 26-year-old Brendan Hansen (breaststroke) and25-year-old Ian Crocker (butterfly), all former Longhorns—still train at theuniversity.
WAKEFIELD, MASS. • Judo
FOUR-TIME Olympian Jimmy Pedro houses many of the country's top judokas—up toeight at once—in a five-bedroom house a mile from Pedro's Judo Center. Amonghis athletes: Ronda Rousey, 21, who last year won gold at the Pan Am Games andsilver at worlds.
INDIANAPOLIS • Diving
IN 1998 then Olympic coach Ron O'Brien created a developmental program inIndianapolis. It produced Thomas Finchum and David Boudia, both now 18, whofinished first and second, respectively, at 2007 nationals on the 10-meterplatform.
LOS ANGELES • Track (Speed Events)
At UCLA'S Drake Stadium, Bob Kersee coaches a group that includes world champAllyson Felix, 22. At West Los Angeles College, John Smith's long-dominantclub, HSI, features such stars as 37-year-old hurdler Allen Johnson, an Olympicand world champion.
CHURCHVILLE, N.Y. • Pole Vault
IN 1996 pole vaulting coach Rick Suhr built an unusual 4,000-square-foottraining site, putting two Quonset huts end-to-end to create space for a120-foot-long synthetic-surfaced runway leading to a vaulting pit. There is noinsulation against winter temperatures, which drop into single digits."When I jump, I always have to wear spikes because the water seeps onto therunway and freezes," says 26-year-old Jenn Stuczynski, the women'sU.S.-record holder (16'0"), who trains under Suhr. Stuczynski (below)bundles up in layers of sweats and stands by a propane blower between attempts."At least when I go to a meet, I feel five pounds lighter because I don'thave to wear as much," she says.