WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Everything inside Team USA’s olympic training camp screams technology.
Outside it was a beautiful spring day with Pikes Peak looming majestically to the west, but as Desiree Linden pounded out miles on a treadmill in a hermetically sealed room at the Olympic Training Center (OTC), it was a Sunday morning in August in Rio de Janeiro. And she wasn’t at 6,100 feet, she was at sea level imagining the Olympic marathon.
Linden was sweating hard in the OTC’s high altitude training center where technicians can create simulated altitudes from sea level up to 24,000 feet by regulating the amount of oxygen in the room. The temperature was set at 90 degrees, with 73 percent relative humidity. That’s hotter than historical averages for Aug. 14 in Rio (80 to 82 degrees), but the thermometer could easily hit 90 the day of the women’s marathon, even though it’s winter in Rio.
“We are assessing Desi’s abilities and her weaknesses of running in that environment,” said Randy Wilber, a senior sport physiologist for the USOC.
Before the session Linden swallowed a pill that would detect her body core temperature and send readings via telemetry to nearby instruments. She wore skin patches to monitor the rate and composition of her sweat, measuring electrolyte loss.
“We’ll be able to sit down with her this afternoon and say, ‘Here is where you need to drink more.’ Or, ‘Instead of this drink, you need to drink this type of drink that contains more sodium or less sodium,’ ” Wilber said.
This is the kind of thing that happens at the OTC, a 35 acre facility with 125 resident athletes and enough dormitory beds to house more than 500 if needed. Linden trains in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and her visit for the session with Wilber are normally quite short. But Michael Phelps did a six-week altitude training block at the OTC pool in the spring. Some sports use the OTC for training camps, but many of America’s best wrestlers and male gymnasts train there on a daily basis, living dormitory style and taking their meals in one of the world’s healthiest cafeterias.
It’s not just about training, it’s also about providing America’s Olympic athletes the best in sports physiology, sports medicine, psychology and nutrition.
“We always talk about a 1 percent difference, how we can create a 1 percent gap with respect to international competition,” says Mounir Zok, director of technology and innovation for the USOC. “This gap is usually the difference between the gold medal or no medal at the Olympic Games.”
There is an aquatic center with an underwater camera on a track that runs the length of the pool, taking video footage of swimmers whose strokes can be analyzed from multiple angles, in slow motion and frame by frame. There are six full size courts that can be used for basketball or volleyball. There is specific training space for wrestling, fencing, gymnastics, judo, boxing and weightlifting. Off site there is an outdoor velodrome.
Boxers utilize technology that counts the number and power of their punches as they pummel a punching bag. On the day Linden ran in the high altitude room, triathlete Erin Jones was running on a “Noraxon instrumented treadmill” in a different room with “joint markers” collecting data from her strides. High-speed video and foot strike measurements provided data for 3D gait analysis.
“We can look at this and provide help for Erin to improve her power output as well as look at her stride, even how she transfers weight on each impact,” said Dr. Bill Moreau, USOC managing director of sports medicine and chief medical officer for the U.S. team going to Rio.
“We can tell if there is a sway of her foot. We can put a different pair of shoes on her. We can put a Paralympian up there with one leg and a prosthesis and see how different types of adjustments can improve force output.”
The mind of the athlete is addressed too. Denver’s Adeline Gray, a three-time world champion hoping to become America’s first female Olympic wrestling champion, has been practicing “mindfulness” training for more than three years with USOC senior sports psychologist Peter Haberl.
“It helps me recognize how often I get distracted and be able to choose where I want to put my attention,” said Gray, a Bear Creek High School graduate who has lived at the OTC the past eight years.
“What we recreate is allowing ourselves to get frustrated, let those positive or negative emotions come up and see how detrimental they can be.”
Gold medal expectations
Gray was the overwhelming favorite at the Olympic trials but still had to win her weight category to make the team for Rio. Being expected to win brings a special kind of pressure. Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin was in a similar situation in the slalom at the Sochi Olympics, and Haberl uses her experience as an object lesson.
“Favored to win that gold medal in Sochi, in the lead after first run, second run skiing really well and the thought pops into her head, ‘I’m about to win the gold medal,’ ” Haberl says. “She makes a mistake, almost goes out. The thought itself became a distraction. What’s important for me is that you notice your expectations, you notice your thoughts and you treat them as just thoughts. Then, ‘Can I come back and focus on what matters right now?’ ”
Gray has learned from the Shiffrin story.
“We talked about that skier, how dangerous the positive and negative thoughts can be,” Gray says. “Everybody knows about the danger of negative thoughts, but stepping into a positive thought like, ‘Oh, I’m about to win …’ ” That is dangerous too.
Another part of the building houses a 37,000-square-foot strength and conditioning center with more than 19,000 pounds of barbells, dumbbells and plates, a 125-meter three-lane running track, a 60-meter two-lane sprint track and four truck tires weighing 200 to 600 pounds for wrestlers to throw around. Amanda Wittenmyer is a strength and conditioning physiologist in what is essentially the coolest health club in Colorado.
“I feel blessed to be able to do what I do,” said Wittenmyer.
“You experience gratification when an athlete achieves their dream. There’s a lot of highs and lows — not everyone qualifies. When you spend time developing a relationship with an athlete and they don’t make the team, you take it just as hard. When they do, it’s just as exciting.”
“There’s nothing greater than representing your country, whether it is military or as an athlete. That’s why we do what we do. When you are surrounded by passion, it just breeds passion.”