Blogging the Road to Beijing

June 23, 2008, 4:59 p.m. (ET)

The Olympic Training Center: Like college for athletes

At 5'7" tall, I have never thought of myself as short. But standing in the lunch line at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs behind the Brazilian women's volleyball team, I am child-size.

It's a sport, I've learned, that attracts women who are even taller than basketball players. Like 6'5" Alix Klineman, an outside hitter from Manhattan Beach, Calif., who was at the OTC recently to play an exhibition volleyball tournament against Brazil, the top-ranked team in the world. And perhaps tallest?

Female basketball players were also in residence at OTC that week, and it was fun to guess who plays which sport. It's all in the shorts, I soon realized. Volleyball players wear very short shorts; basketball players are in those knee-length drapey things that might as well be skirts.

I was at OTC two weeks ago to catch up with a few of the 2008 Olympians training there-from wrestlers to trampolinists. With dorms, training facilities, and a performance center-home to a recovery center, sports psychology, and sports medicine-as well as myriad administrative offices for the USOC and a variety of sports' NGBs (national governing bodies), it looks like either a college campus or a military installation, depending on your viewpoint.

Flag-lined walkways, the austere architecture of some of the older buildings, and the ubiquitous Brazilians-perpetually clad in their national team uniforms (although perhaps the airline lost their luggage as well as mine)-lend the complex the feeling of an army base. The cinderblock walls in the dorms don't help. But at least they are clean (both the dorms and the cinderblocks).

In truth, the OTC is more like a college campus-without the keg parties-where those who qualify are invited to train with some of the world's top coaches. It's like Harvard or Stanford, with their Nobel laureates on the faculty. Not all Olympic athletes train here, but a few sports-wrestling, trampoline, Paralympic swimming, weightlifting, among them-have resident coaches.

As someone who once suffered under a college ski coach whose primary talent appeared to be his ability to mimic-verbatim-Bill Murray's character in the movie Caddyshack, I am in awe of the coaching talent available on this plot of land beneath Pike's Peak.

In a large building dubbed Sports Center 1, there's a room filled with men's gymnastics equipment (rings, horizontal bar, etc.) set up over large foam-cube-filled pits where Vitaly Marinitch watches over Olympic hopefuls like Yewki Tomita and Todd Thornton. Marinitch's mild manner-I never hear him raise his voice; he quietly speaks to the athletes when they have finished a skill or routine-belies his palmares: In 1989, he helped the Soviets win the overall team title at the World Championships.

Next door, stern Dmitry Polyarush says, "Up, up, up higher, up," as national team members Erin Blanchard, Chris Estrada, Alaina Hebert, Alaina Williams, and Logan Dooley work out on the trampoline. From Belarus, Polyarush was "many times world champion" and came out of retirement to compete in trampoline in the past two Olympics, finishing fifth in 2000 and fourth in 2004. (Trampoline became a medal sport for men and women in 2000.)

I don't see Polyarush smile until I speak with him one-on-one, but the athletes have great faith in their Byelorussian coach.

In the volleyball court-a curtain-wall removed from the gymnastics area-China's national icon "Jenny" Lang Ping coaches the U.S. women's team as they prepare for their match with Brazil. She's like Tiger Woods in China, I'm told. Lang Ping won gold in 1984 playing volleyball for China, then she coached her countrywomen to a silver medal at the 1996 Games. Now she's trying to lead the American team onto the medal stand in her hometown-Beijing. If they win, the Americans might become more of a story than their coach.

Across the OTC complex's main walkway, 1976 Olympic gold medalist Momir Petkovic, a barrel-chested wrestler from the former Yugoslavia, works with the Greco-Roman wrestlers. He led them to their first world championship title last September. As his wrestlers warm up, he jokes with them, but few spar verbally with him. There's a sense that if anyone jokes back, they might be doing 400 push-ups.

In the aquatic building, former Auburn University coach Jimi Flowers works with the Paralympic swimmers, including 2004 Paralympic gold medalist Jarrett Perry and world record holder in the 400m freestyle, Susan Beth Scott, who's only 16. They came here specifically to train with Flowers, who was an assistant coach at Auburn in 1999 when the university won its second DI NCAA men's swimming title.

This assortment of coaches and athletes-along with boxers, fencers, a triathlete or two, a taekwondo gold medalist, modern pentathletes, and weightlifters-isn't segregated at OTC. The athletes and coaches mingle several times a day in the complex's dining hall.

The buffet is open from 7 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. with only 15-minute breaks from one meal to the next. And this is where the OTC varies from college. The food is actually good. There is no mystery meat or chipped beef on toast, no vegetables steamed to mush, no hard-as-concrete dinner rolls that make excellent projectiles to hurl across the tables.

The menu lists grilled lean turkey with onions and peppers or grilled trout, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes or (dare I say it) lima beans, pickled beets, green salads, mushroom salads, and bean salads, and except for some rice and pasta, nary a carbohydrate in sight.

So when I go looking for a cookie after dinner, there are none. Just some "better for you" cupcakes and ice cream with a sign over it saying, "Every athlete has a dream. Every choice makes a difference."

I ponder this sign, then make myself an ice cream cone. Is this why I never made it to the Olympics, I wonder? Or am I simply not tall enough?

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