Thursday, June 2, 2016

A rare view inside the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO

Last week I made the trip to Colorado Springs to meet up with my friends at the US Olympic Committee and to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the US Olympic Training Center. They do give tours of the training center, but this tour does not include much of what I was able to see in my visit. Today's blog post is my chance to share some of the photos and stories with all of you, giving you a chance to see how our athletes train to prepare for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Come along on my virtual tour of the facility.


I entered via the athlete and employee entrance and this is the view from that parking lot. This is the Ted Stevens Sports Center, which is a really impressive building, housing the main workout facilities and much more.  The US Olympic Training Center (USOTC) consists of 37,000 square feet of training space. It has sport venues and support facilities for fencing, gymnastics, judo, modern pentathlon, shooting, swimming, taekwondo, weightlifting, and wrestling.


This is a view inside the building, with an impressive array of weights, machines and other workout equipment.


After arriving at the facility, I walked around and photographed many of the elements. There are 19,201 pounds of barbells, dumbbells and bumper plates on the premises.


I loved that each of the weights had the Olympic Rings on them.


After photographing at ground level, I went upstairs to get some shots from overhead.


Sports are categorized into one of four "sportfolios": endurance, strength and power, acrobat and combat, and team and technical. And many of the 555 US Summer Olympic athletes will spend time here at one point.



It was really impressive to see the athletes working out. Everyone is in such amazing shape!


Here, Dartanyon Crockett, shows his athletic ability and leg strength.


And a short iPhone video for you


This is a 300 pound tire that he is picking up and moving. No easy task. The USOTC has 4 Bridgestone tires ranging from 200 to 600 pounds.

Back upstairs, I was given a demonstration of the technology used to train the athletes. Being a technical person, this was fun to watch.


They had two boxers, Nico Hernandez and Shakur Stevenson, who were being outfitted with wearable technology on each of their wrists. Prior to entering the ring, the boxers put on these small sensors containing 3-D accelerometers and 3-D gyroscopes that measure frequency, force and effort exerted with each punch.


Shakur and Nico competed in an informal head-to-head competition, with Nico winning.


I love Shakur's reaction to seeing the data on the screen. When asked about his big smile, he said that even in a friendly competition, he hates to lose. These guys are competitive for sure!


Continuing on with the tour of the USOTC technology, here is Desiree Linden running in a special High Altitude Training Center. This room helps the athlete simulate the environment of wherever their next event might be. In this case, the room was set to 90 degrees F, 73 percent humidity and a 350 foot altitude to simulate the same conditions in Rio De Janeiro. The USOC is currently working with the athletes in a "Living high / Training low" method. They live in high altitude, adjusting to the lower oxygen levels, but train at the equivalent of lower altitudes.



Another iPhone video for you

What is even more interesting is that, earlier in the morning, she had swallowed a sensor that helps to monitor many of her body functions during this test. Amazing!


Desiree ran for more than an hour at a race pace. This heat / humidity training is designed to measure her sweat rate / loss, sweat composition (electrolytes), body core temperature (via the ingestible pill thermometer), running mechanics and heart rate. With all the data collected, the USOC physiologists and nutritionists can determine the optimal fluid composition and intake, as well as pacing strategies for her 2016 Olympic marathon.


My next stop was into the training kitchen. This is a kitchen area designed for teaching the athletes how to prepare the best food for their strength and conditioning. The USOC employs five full-time dietitians who help the athletes reach their optimal performance. There will be 12 USOC chefs and five sport dietitians heading to Rio to make sure that our athletes are properly fed at the Games. And I also learned that peanuts (or peanut butter) will not be allowed in the Olympic grounds, since the organizing committee does not want to affect those with severe allergies.


After learning about how the athletes are fueling their bodies, I met with the sports psychology team. The USOC employs 6 full-time sports psychologists  who work with the athletes to develop the mental skills to perform a their best. This photo shows three athletes and one of the sports psychologists as they describe their regiment. It was really interesting when Peter Haberl, the sports psychologist, explained how important concentration and focusing was to the athletes. He asked one person to stand in front of him and threw him a ball. He repeated this a couple of times. No stress there! Then he switched from the ball to a raw egg (which you see in front of him). The person catching the raw egg took this more seriously and had much more attention on the task. With all the stress of the Olympics and Paralympics, you can bet the mental part of the sport is as important as the physical. In many of the competitions, the physical and mental difference of 1% can be the difference between winning a gold medal or not medal at all.


Here is Mike Tagliapietra, from the Paralympic Shooting team in one of the sports psychology labs. Sensors are placed on Mike to measure his brain wave, heart rate, breathing, sweat and muscle activity in real time. Then they use different video game types of videos to increase or decrease his brain and body responses. This practice allows him to build his concentration and enhance his recovery times.



The USOTC is the only one-stop comprehensive sports medicine assessment facility in the US, with physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and massage therapists. They also have state-of-the-art technology, including ultrasound, X-ray, MRI and more. They were performing an ultrasound on Elena Pirozhkova (USA wrestling) when I walked in.


Here is Erin Jones, USA Triathlete,  running on a Noraxon instrumented treadmill, which allows for high-speed video, 3-D motion analysis, and force / pressure reading while she is running. The USOC uses these metrics to analyze symmetry in an athlete's gait. It measures data such as ground contact time, side-to-side force output, side-to-side foot strike comparison, and joint range of motion. It is really amazing to see how much science goes into these sports.


This is the only photo I took of the USOTC swimming pool, and I had to take it through the window from outside. Even with this exclusive behind-the-scenes tour, there were limits. If there were certain teams or athletes practicing (can you say Michael Phelps?), we were not allowed to be in that area. If you are wondering what the large yellow containers are for, you are not alone. Those are weights that can be attached to the swimmers to put additional drag on them as they swim. They also have another set of weights which are in reverse, which means that they can pull the athlete even faster than they normally swim. This helps them realize the speeds that they could attain and how the water reacts in those situations. Pretty impressive!


The USOTC has between 12,000 to 15,000 athletes come through each year, with approximately 500 at a time. Many of them live on the premises during their stay. They have a total of 242 rooms with 512 beds. The building on the left is one of the living halls, with the circular building being the cafeteria.



I had a chance to eat in the cafeteria, with many of the athletes, and the food was outstanding. Needless to say, with all the hard-bodied athletes surrounding me, I mostly ate salad. :)


This is the area where the US Weight Lifting team trains. It isn't the most lavish room in the complex, but it gets the job done. If you see some of these rooms and wonder why they look old, the USOTC was originally the home of ENT Air Force Base and the North American Defense Command. It officially became the home of the USOC in 1978.


This is one of the walkways on the grounds of the USOTC, which provides an amazing view out to Pikes Peak.



My next stop was the Olympic Shooting Center, which is one of the largest indoor shooting ranges in the US.


This is a view of one of the two shooting ranges in the building. There is another range in the basement, below this level.




Here is one of the rooms where the US Gymnastics teams practice. There are numerous manufacturers of the floor mats, and the USOC always makes sure to have the same brand as the upcoming Olympics, since the surface varies from brand to brand.


And here is another room. As you can see from the foam pit, this is where the athletes can practice their maneuvers minimizing the chances of getting hurt.


A couple of the gymnasts working out in the afternoon...


I was invited to watch the US Boxers practice and, as it turns out, one of the basketball courts is in the same building as the boxing rings. I stopped and watched as the US Paralympic Basketball team warmed up.


And from up above, by the boxing rings, I could look down and watch the team scrimmage. It was pretty inspiring to watch these guys play. I have never had the time to photograph the Paralympics (since I am already gone for a month to cover the Olympics, and the Paralympics don't start until 2 weeks after the Olympics), but I would love to do that some day.


My second to last stop was the boxing rings to watch some of the Olympic hopefuls practice.


I stood right next to the ring and tried to determine the best angle of view. Having never photographed boxing before, it was a little bit of trial and error.


I decided that the best lens of choice would be a wide zoom, so I attached my Canon 24-105mm lens to my Canon 5D Mark III and had some fun.


The action was fast, so I ended up cranking up the ISO of my camera to 3200 to get a relatively fast shutter speed (1/800 sec).


Another iPhone video for you.


After photographing these practice rounds and seeing the action that I was capturing, I am now looking forward to shooting more boxing when I get to the Summer Games in Rio.


This last shot was taken further down the path, on my way towards the brand new visitors center. Unfortunately, the new visitor center is still under construction and weeks away from the grand opening. But I did get a chance to walk in and see what they are creating and it is going to be really spectacular.

What was my last stop? To the store of course, to purchase some Team USA shirts for the family! Right now the store is crammed into a couple little rooms, but soon this will be incorporated into the new visitor center. I guess I will have to make another trip back to the USOTC to see the new building once it is completed.

As I made the 90 minute drive to the Denver International Airport, it gave me time to reflect on what I had just seen. The one thing that really stood out for me, was how much work the athletes, and everyone supporting them, put into the preparations for these competitions. We see these people perform on national television, but very few of us realize the day-to-day routines that these people go through to get to that point. And even though I have been to the Olympics 4 times, and had a chance to get to know many of the athletes, I still had no idea the extent to which they "lived" the sport. They exercise their bodies and minds, eat specifically for their workouts and recoveries, and use the latest in technology to try and get that 1% more, the difference between a competitor and a winner. Being an Olympic athlete is an incredible honor, but takes amazing dedication from this whole team. I know that when I get to Rio and start photographing the events there, I will have even more appreciation for what these men and women are accomplishing.

And yes - after years of preparation, we are now only 2 months away from the 2016 Summer Olympics, where I will be blogging behind-the-scenes photos and stories every day as well as the sports I photographed and how I shot the photos.

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