December 17, 2013

Utah training center hones Olympic skiers, snowboarders

High-tech treadmills, a super trampoline and special diet plans are among the ways the United States tries to give an edge to its athletes.

By Liz Clarke
The Washington Post

PARK CITY, Utah — Russia’s Caucasus Mountains are more than 6,000 miles from Park City, Utah. But the undulating course on which the Nordic combined will be contested at the 2014 Sochi Olympics unfolds on the video screen here in front of Bryan Fletcher, who roller-skis at a carefully calibrated pace (8.3 miles per hour, at a 2.08 degree elevation, to be exact) on a treadmill wide enough for a Chevy Suburban.

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Bryn Fletcher from the United States soars through the air during the Nordic Combined World Cup competition in Ramsau, Austria, on Sunday. He is among those who train at the Utah facility.

The Associated Press

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The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, includes a treadmill, left, designed to measure and maximize the efficiency with which athletes use oxygen.

Washington Post photo by Lee Powell

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Tethered to a vacuum tube that covers his nose and mouth, Fletcher inhales air with the precise concentration of oxygen found at elevation on the Olympic course and expels air that’ s captured by a separate container for further analysis. The setup looks like a mad scientist’s experiment, with Fletcher serving as a 5-feet-9, 145-pound lab rat clad in skin-tight ski gear and the sunglasses he’ll wear in competition. It’s the brainchild of Jim Stray-Gundersen, a former competitive cross-country skier, surgeon and sports science adviser to the U.S. Ski team, who explained the methodology during a recent tour of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah.

“It’s a game-change for our teams,” Stray-Gundersen says of the purpose-built treadmill, designed to measure and maximize the efficiency with which athletes use oxygen and, as a result, make inroads in the historically European-dominated sport that marries ski jumping with cross-country racing.

But he could just as easily be speaking of the center itself. With neither mountains to rival the European Alps nor a centuries’ old Nordic skiing tradition, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association has compensated with this $25 million Center of Excellence, the result of American ingenuity and private philanthropy. The technology treadmill is just one piece of equipment in the three-story complex, which since its May 2009 opening has emerged as a major asset in the United States’ pursuit of Winter Olympics hegemony.

If the Center of Excellence is akin to an athletic factory, its goal is the opposite of mass production, providing training, physical therapy, coaching and nutrition services that are tailored to the specific demands of each winter sport and each athlete vying for a share of Olympic glory.

The building makes a lavish first impression, with its modern architecture, sun-drenched open spaces and state of-the-art equipment. But in the context of outsize Olympic spending – Russia’s tab for hosting the Sochi Games reportedly tops $48 billion – it has proven a shrewd investment.

The United States topped the medal tables at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where American skiers and snowboarders accounted for 21 of its 37 medals. With the majority of Sochi-bound athletes taking advantage of the center’s resources over the past Olympic cycle, the complex likely will play a major role in the U.S. fortunes in Sochi, where 49 of 98 Olympic events will be contested by skiers and snowboarders.

With less than two months before Sochi’s Feb. 7 opening ceremonies, the center is as silent as a city street awakening from a blizzard. Most prospective Olympians are off competing throughout Europe and North America to solidify their places on the Sochi-bound team. But in the off-season, it’s a star-studded hive of activity.

The lobby sets the tone: It’s a building designed to honor the past, yet dedicated to shattering its limits.

As skier Andrew Weibrecht, who won bronze in the super G in Vancouver, put it in a phrase that’s emblazoned on a prominent display: “Gravity: It’s more of a nuisance than a law.”

The lobby spills into a two-story weight room adorned with oversized photos of champions such as skiers Billy Kidd and Lindsey Vonn and snowboarding pioneers Danny Kass and Hannah Kearney.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association hopes its Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, will give a training edge to U.S. Olympians.

Washington Post photo by Lee Powell


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