The Olympic Training Center is a multi-million dollar facility in a Colorado Spring, Colorado, geared toward promoting swimming at the Olympic level. It offers athletic services for residential and traveling national-level athletes. I was invited to train at the center for a week, along with twenty other people from my team, the Marlins of Raleigh.
OTC offers a long-course 50-meter pool, full weight and dryland centers, cafeterias, dorms, and a full sports-med staff. It’s set near the Rocky Mountains, at 6,000 feet, providing athletes with an opportunity to train at high altitude, which will help improve their lower altitude competition. Recently, the California men’s swim team spent three weeks at the training center, then flew straight to the NCAA Division One Championship, placing second, with Ryan Murphy breaking an American record.
I noticed the altitude stepping off the plane. As I walked up the jetway to the gate–a very slight incline–I was already breathing hard. Climbing the stairs with a forty pound bag of clothes and food plus another twenty pound bag of swimming equipment plus another twenty pound bag of schoolwork was another challenge in and of itself. A week of intense training was a daunting thought while I was struggling to walk up a flight of stairs.
The Olympic Training Center also serves as a source of bragging rights for the United States. The Olympics are essentially an international contest to see who can produce the best athletes, but still in the spirit of cooperation. Thus, the US allows other countries to come and train at our training center; because of this, the structure is as modern and opulent as possible–but also completely secure and gated.
This made the center large and imposing to a group of good, but not necessarily great, athletes. We were given government-issued badges and had to scan into the dorms, athletic centers, cafeteria, and even bathrooms. The US Olympic, National, and Junior National Teams were kept separate from us run-of-the-mill athletes in the dorms, but that ended in two places: the cafeteria and the pool.
At the training center, I had weights 7:00-8:00 AM, dryland exercises 9:00-10:00, swim practice 11:00-1:00, nutrition and technique lectures from 2:00-5:00, dryland exercises 6:00-7:00, and a final swim practice 7:00-9:00. This schedule was incredibly demoralizing and exhausting. But there was a certain special atmosphere at the training center, a certain special experience of training and practicing with the best of the best.
Conor Dwyer, a fourteen-time medalist and personal idol, swam in my lane before me. Tyler Clary, a sixteen-time medalist including an Olympic gold, swam in the lane next to me. The Stanford Women’s swim team–second at the NCAA D1 Championships–practiced after me. Katie Ledecky, a world record holder in three different events, ate two soft-serve ice cream cones next to me at dinner. It was a strange mix of inspiring and terrifying to live and eat and train and compete with internationally-known athletes.
To be completely honest, the training was awful. A combination of altitude, intensity of the workouts, and sheer duration of the day lead to complete exhaustion; only the experience of being around Olympians and my teammates kept me going. The lectures, while interesting and helpful, were long and extremely technical, discussing the hundredths of a second difference of tempo of different high-level athletes.
I watched videos of Nathan Adrian, a three time Olympic gold medalist, take two strokes and a breath in slow motion for nearly thirty minutes. I watched a video of Simone Manuel, NCAA champ, do a race start at quarter speed fifteen times. I watched Michael Phelps–eighteen time Olympic gold medalist–take eight kicks underwater for half an hour. The experts at OTC had extremely high definition cameras and precise filming techniques to capture specific statistics and analyze exactly what was making these people the best of the best.
Kevin Blum, my coach, has worked at the Olympic Training Center and knew most of the staff. Through some people he used to coach with, he procured a spot for three of us–myself and two other freestylers–to swim with Team Santa Monica. This is a year-round team like my own, but from southern California, and revered for their exceptional long-distance program. We swam with Jordan Wilimovsky, the 2015 10k open water champion, along with three other Olympic Trials qualifiers in the mile.
This was an incredible experience. I was absolutely destroyed on every lap, every stroke, every kick. It was humbling to watch someone lap me for the umpteenth time, and then he himself be humble after the set. The Team Santa Monica coach set up a faster A interval for Jordan, then a much slower B interval for the other six of us. Within about fifteen minutes, Jordan was decimating his interval, while the rest of us were struggling to keep up with the slower set, even with extra rest. Later, when the coach saw how poorly we were doing relative to Jordan, he gave us a break. And told us to put on fins. And paddles. And snorkels. All equipment intended to help us go faster, in order to challenge us to keep up with Jordan. It took us about ten minutes to fall behind again, behind a guy with nothing but his arms and legs to push himself through the water.
Technically speaking, the official goal of the Olympic Training Center is to provide an opportunity for athletes to train at high-altitude, enabling them to compete farther, faster, and better. However, a grim reality emerges. Biologically speaking, it takes three weeks at altitude for your cells to change to the extent that you can actually take advantage of the altitude training. So then, what’s the point? What’s the point of traveling across the country to an awful week of training, just to come home and not feel any different?
On the first day, Frank Bush, the National Team Director for the last ten years, told us this.
“You’re not going to acclimate. You’re doing intense training at altitude in a bad part of the season to try to put in actual long course training. But you won’t remember the sets from here. You may remember how you felt, but only vaguely. Instead, you’ll remember what happened here. You’ll remember the time with your teammates and the experience of swimming at this level and the power of this place. You’ll remember your motivation and why you swim–why all of us swim. To be the best.”