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Chula Vista Olympic Training Center Grows, Adapts Over Its Two Decades

By Doug Williams | June 10, 2015, 6:26 p.m. (ET)

Competitors drop into the course during a heat at the U.S. Olympic Trials for BMX held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on June 14, 2008 in Chula Vista, Calif.

In his office at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, Tracy Lamb has a map of the proposed training center from April of 1989.

The opening of the OTC was still six years away, and the dreams were big. As planned, the 155-acre site would have a gymnasium, aquatic center, track and field facilities and fields for archery, softball, soccer and field hockey, plus venues for other sports.

When the Olympic Training Center officially opened on June 10, 1995, there was no gym or pool, and the facility — which was projected to serve 14 sports — would initially play host to athletes from just six sports.

Yet as the training center celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s a vital part of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movements. It has produced countless medal winners, served as the home for a variety of sports and evolved in ways its original planners couldn’t have envisioned.

“I have it sitting in my office for a reason,” said Lamb, who’s been the director at Chula Vista since 2007, of the map. “You need to know what was thought and what was the dream of the people … who thought of putting a training center out here.

“But you also need to be reactive to the change of sport and what’s going on with our youth and what is active today.”

That sports evolution has brought change to Chula Vista. Today the center is home to three BMX tracks and six beach volleyball courts — venues for two sports that hadn’t even been officially introduced into the Olympic Games in 1995. Plus, the growth of the Paralympic Games has brought far more Paralympians into the facilities than projected 20 years ago.

And, says Lamb, just because there hasn’t yet been a gym or aquatic center doesn’t mean they won’t someday be built. The United States Olympic Committee has worked with national sports governing bodies to build new facilities over the past two decades, and such partnerships could produce further expansion. Plus, the future of the facility is likely to continue to evolve, with a possible partnership between the USOC and the city of Chula Vista.

“I think that as things move forward for this particular training center, the opportunity for a pool, a gym, more housing, all become something that will help us continue to be relevant for the next 20 years,” Lamb said. “How that partnership (with national governing bodies) happens and how it all evolves, that’s the trick of sport. It will be interesting to see the future.”

“It’s A Blessing”

The Chula Vista Olympic Training Center sits on a bluff, overlooking Lower Otay Lake, where the rowing and canoe and kayak athletes can train. It celebrated its 20th birthday this past Sunday, welcoming the public for a free all-day community expo and sports demonstrations.

It’s a visually stunning place with terrific weather for year-round work, the USOC’s lone warm-weather Olympic Training Center (Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Lake Placid, New York, being the others). It’s a hub of activity for a diverse group that includes archers, pole vaulters and rugby players all training, eating and living side by side.

“It’s a blessing,” said Paralympic long jumper and sprinter Lex Gillette, one of the OTC’s resident athletes. “We’re able to come out here, and I can’t remember a day that we haven’t been able to train outside.”

Said Lamb: “You’re able to accomplish so much here. The vista from anywhere on this point that looks out over the lake and out to the mountains is absolutely gorgeous. There’s so many positive things about what this training center has to offer the guest as well as the athletes alike.”

The training center is home to full-time residents in the sports of archery, BMX, men’s field hockey, men’s and women’s rugby sevens (a new sport at the 2016 Games), track and field, Paralympic track and field and wheelchair tennis. In the past, softball and soccer teams also have been based there. Even winter sports athletes — in hockey, luge, bobsled, speedskating, biathlon, skiing and snowboarding — train at Chula Vista in their offseasons.

On-site venues (aside from BMX and beach volleyball) include four multi-purpose sports fields (with another under construction), an outdoor archery range, a field hockey pitch, two tennis courts, a 400-meter track and separate throwing area, a boathouse on the lake, a strength and conditioning center, sports medicine facility, dining and residence halls and visitor center. This fall, the indoor-outdoor Easton Archery Complex will open and another dorm will be completed. As of now, the OTC has rooms for just over 130 athletes to reside.

In addition to training, the Chula Vista facility is also used for some sports clinics, camps and elite, international-level competitions, such as BMX world cups, Olympic trials for archery and track meets.

The numbers of Chula Vista-based athletes who medal at the Olympic and Paralympic Games (summer and winter) have increased significantly through the years, too. Athletes from the OTC won two medals at the 1996 Games and four at the 2000 Games.

But at London in 2012, athletes who trained in Chula Vista won medals in men’s archery, women’s beach volleyball, rowing, track and field, swimming, women’s soccer and women’s water polo. Paralympic athletes from track and field, wheelchair tennis, rowing, archery and cycling also won medals.

In total, resident athletes have been responsible for 49 Olympic and Paralympic medals thus far.

Even several winter Olympic and Paralympic medalists at Sochi in 2014 spent training time at Chula Vista. The women’s hockey team, a luger, two bobsledders, a speedskater and skier Bode Miller — plus six Paralympians — trained in California.

For Lamb, who enjoys getting out and talking to the athletes, their performances are a point of pride. He said he enjoys knowing “that the training center was part of their road to that success.”

For marathoner Meb Keflezighi, the OTC was an important stop in his career. After graduating from UCLA and before moving to Mammoth Lakes, California, to train at altitude, Keflezighi lived at the OTC from 1999 until 2001.

The three-time Olympian and silver medalist in the 2004 marathon recalled his time in Chula Vista as a great transition period where he could focus on his training, be a part of his first Olympic team and get to know so many athletes across so many sports.

He said the OTC has grown quite a bit since those early years, but the camaraderie that is fostered there remains the same.

“I remember making the 2000 Olympic team and I ran into the rowers at the airport, and it was, ‘Hey, Meb!’ and we were hugging each other,” he said. He recalls getting to know race walkers, archers, cyclists and soccer players, including Mia Hamm, who’s remained a friend all these years — even texting him after he won the Boston Marathon in 2014.

Achieving Together

Gillette, who won the silver medal in the long jump at the last two Paralympic Games, has lived and trained in Chula Vista since 2008.

As a boy he lost his sight because of detached retinas, but that hasn’t stopped him from excelling in the long jump, triple jump and sprints, and he said the track and field facilities at the Olympic Training Center are world-class quality.

Plus, he said he’s enjoyed being a part of the OTC evolution.

“You get to see the growth and expansion,” he said, pointing specifically to improvements in sports medicine and a remodeled track.

But he said just is important is the atmosphere at Chula Vista. Instead of being somewhere where he’s training on his own or focusing just on himself, he gets to know athletes from other sports. He feels more a part of the Olympic and Paralympic movements.

“You see a lot of the same people every day, you get to engage with them, you get to become friends with them,” he said. “You know them and they become, in a sense, part of your family. At the end of the day everyone is out here trying to achieve a similar goal, and that’s to go represent the country at the Olympics or Paralympics.”

At Chula Vista, the Paralympic and Olympic track and field athletes train together. Gillette also has discussed starting techniques with the bobsled athletes when they’ve come to work on their push starts.

“You get to learn about these guys and pick their brains about their sport,” he said.

One of his favorite memories of his seven years at the training center, in fact, has nothing to do with track and field, but with BMX.

Gillette used to go to the BMX track for competitions to cheer on his friend, rider Arielle Martin. But because he couldn’t see it and had never experienced the sport, he had a hard time grasping what it was all about until one day Martin took him on a walking tour of the entire track, from the steep starting ramp to the turns and jumps.

“A few months later I got the bright idea to ask, ‘Can I ride a portion of it on a bike?’” he recalled. “And she was like, ‘Yeah, let’s try it out.’”

With her guidance in 2011, he rode the ups-and-downs of what was called the Rhythm Section of the track and had a blast being a BMX athlete for a day. Outfitted in a USA jersey, helmet and pads, Gillette pedaled over part of the course again and again.

“I got really comfortable with it actually, and I ended up speeding through there a couple of times,” he said. “We made a video and we put it on YouTube. It was definitely a lot of fun.”

It’s the kind of connection Lamb said he sees all the time. He calls it “An Olympic village environment without the Olympics going on.” Bobsledders or BMXers or Paralympic long jumpers form friendships and share information.

Said Lamb: “All of a sudden the dining room or the dining hall becomes this place where everybody’s pollinating each other with wonderful ideas.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written to TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related Athletes

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Lex Gillette

Track and Field
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Mebrahtom Keflezighi