|Nordic combined athlete Bryan Fletcher demonstrates the Center
of Excellence's technology treadmill on Sept. 30, 2013 in Park
|Center of Excellence gym|
|Ramps and tramps at the Center of Excellence|
PARK CITY, Utah — On a sunny evening in late September, Bryan Fletcher is skate skiing on the Sochi Nordic combined cross-country course. Except he’s in Park City, Utah.
Breathing from a plastic mouthpiece attached to a flexible hose, Fletcher is rollerskiing on a giant treadmill and breathing air with the same oxygen saturation level that he will experience competing in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in February.
The technology treadmill, as it’s called, was designed by Dr. Jim Stray-Gundersen, a medical doctor who has pioneered high-low training. He is now the U.S. Ski Team’s sports science advisor. The treadmill is rigged with PVC pipe leading from oxygen tanks to three large cloth bags (actually repurposed weather balloons). The flexible hose leads from the bags directly to the mouthpiece used by Fletcher.
Looking as if it’s part of a high-tech dairy operation, the apparatus is designed to simulate altitude — and thus oxygen saturation levels — at various cross-country ski venues around the world, including Sochi, with an elevation around 1,600 meters (the COE sits at 2,000 meters). From expired air (also collected in bags near the treadmill), trainers can evaluate how efficient athletes are at utilizing the available oxygen.
According to Stray-Gundersen, it’s the only treadmill like it in the world. And it’s one of many athletic advantages offered at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence in Park City. Located on Victory Lane, the COE is USSA’s national training and education facility — a high-tech gym with sports performance, nutrition and classrooms under one big roof. Privately funded, the facility opened in May 2009.
“I really didn’t have an appreciation for the impact [the Center of Excellence] would have on the organization,” said USSA CEO Bill Marolt. “It had a major impact in 2010. And the impact and the effect of this building continue to grow.”
The British, Australians and Canadians have taken a similar centralized approach to training their skiers and snowboarders. But Marolt said the COE has taken it to the next level.
USSA athletes rave about the COE, from alpine to cross-country to freestyle and freeskiers.
Alpine skier and 2014 Olympic hopeful Travis Ganong — who scored his first top 10s in two FIS World Cup downhills last season — called the COE a game changer. From Squaw Valley, Calif., Ganong, 25, now regularly travels to Park City to train during the off-season.
“It’s just been a huge resource for all the athletes,” he said. “We’ve become more professional because of it, just more dedicated to our sport. It’s top of the line. There’s nothing else we could want.”
Visible from the COE’s entryway is a huge weight room, with images of every USSA Olympic medalist serving as inspiration — from USSA’s first Olympic medalist Anders Haugen (bronze, ski jumping, 1924 Olympic Winter Games) to Lindsey Vonn. Adjacent to the weight room is a gymnasium and “ramps and tramps” area where freestyle skiers, freeskiers and snowboarders can perfect their airs and practice new ones.
“I basically live at the Center of Excellence,” gushed freestyle aerials skier Ashley Caldwell, who moved from Lake Placid’s Olympic Training Center to Park City last year. Caldwell, 20, hopes to make her second U.S. Olympic Team this winter after rehabbing from a series of knee injuries.
“I work out there, I trampoline there, I play basketball there, I eat there, I recover there, I get my physical therapy there,” she added. “I’m there four to five hours every day in addition to my other training at the water ramps. It’s the best facility we’ve got. It’s very impressive, it’s state of the art, and I’m so grateful to have it.”
Grete Eliassen, 27, a dual U.S. and Norwegian citizen, chose to be on the U.S. Ski Team rather than Norway’s freeskiing team because of the COE. She utilizes both the trampolines in the COE and the water ramps at nearby Utah Olympic Park to practice spinning in both directions — a key in slopestyle — and corks (off-axis trick). Now living in nearby Salt Lake City, she calls the area and the COE “the perfect place to live for an action sport skier.”
The COE also includes a sport performance nutrition center, sport science lab, recovery and rehab center, workshop (to prepare competition gear), and the USSA TEAM Academy, a high school that opened this year. Older athletes can also pursue degrees at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
“It makes sense to be here,” said three-time Olympian Marco Sullivan, 33, who is also from the Lake Tahoe area but moved to Salt Lake City to train at the COE and pursue a degree at Westminster. “I come up 8 a.m. and leave 5 p.m. You really can’t get that anywhere else.”
Marolt credits the COE with helping USSA skiers and snowboarders achieve the organization’s vision of “best in the world.” At the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Team USA won 37 medals. USSA athletes won 21 of those medals.
In Sochi, 49 of the 98 medal events are medal opportunities for USSA skiers and snowboarders — or 147 total Olympic medals. And U.S. athletes are favored to win many of them, thanks in part to the Center of Excellence.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.