A tour of Olympic proportions

Life presented me with some unique opportunities recently.

Two of my old college roommates and I visited a fourth roommate in Colorado Springs two weeks ago to celebrate his retirement from the Air Force.  My friend of 27 years has spent his career educating the Air Force Academy’s brightest young cadets on the physics of launching rockets and plotting satellite orbits and trajectories for moving things like the Mars Rover from one planet in our solar system to another.

We were given the executive tour of the Air Force Academy and I will recount this amazing story in a column some day.  For now, just know the pinnacle of our Academy tour was viewing a $20 million satellite, built in part by my friend and cadets under his direction.  This very satellite will launch on the Space-X Falcon Heavy mission later this year, and I got to stand next to it.

Well, next to the impenetrable security window beside the locked security door with the high-tech alarm system.  But technically I was inches away.

Given current events, though, I want to highlight our visit to another local spot:  The United States Olympic Training Center.  Colorado Springs houses the largest of three such facilities in the country and with the Rio Olympics just two weeks away, we were pretty fired up to be there.

The entire place was awe-inspiring and state of the art.  The 35-acre campus in the heart of Colorado Springs can house up to 500 athletes year-round, providing them with immediate access to the very best training facilities the world over.  Its hallowed grounds have accommodated more than a few household names like Apolo Anton Ohno, Michael Phelps, and the first gold medalist of the Rio Olympics, sports shooter Virginia (Ginny) Thrasher.

Because of the timing of our trip, many athletes were dispersed around the country at various qualifying events, but we saw several members of the weightlifting team working out and some of the wrestling team as well as numerous winter team athletes training for 2018.

The shooting range where Thrasher trains was one of the first stops on our tour, which like most USOTC tours was conducted by an athlete-in-training.  Our particular tour was led by a charismatic young man named Dakarai (Dak) Kongela, who recently transitioned from bobsled pilot to skeleton rider in preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The shooting facilities were impressive, the size of a warehouse with multiple ranges for rifles, pistols, and air rifles such as Thrasher’s.  I literally stood on the same ground where she honed her skills for hundreds of hours to represent the United States.  Well, again, some pretty thick glass and several locked doors stood in between, but otherwise I was basically following in her very footsteps.

Before moving on to the next stop, I managed to grab a sheet of cards for the entire US shooting team, a freebie for visitors.  Given that this is her first Olympics, I can say that I actually have Virginia Thrasher’s rookie card.  Don’t get any ideas – it’s not for sale.

The most amazing thing about the entire campus was not necessarily the pristine facilities or even its rather overwhelming size.  Aside from the athletes, its star is the technology.

A portion of one track converts from indoor to outdoor by way of large glass garage-door-like openings that can be raised or lowered for the desired training environment.  The entire track, both indoors and outdoors, is pressure-sensitive and provides trainers and doctors detailed information about how much pressure an athlete places on each foot, among numerous other pieces of data.  That is critical information for an athlete recovering from a knee surgery, for example.

Another example?  How about a zero-gravity treadmill?  Seriously.  An athlete just coming off that same knee surgery can run on this treadmill carrying 0% of their body weight, continuing to develop the muscles and improve muscle memory during recovery without putting the repaired knee at risk.  The weight supported can be adjusted over time so that a week out from surgery, the athlete carries 5% body weight, the next week 10%, and so on until back at 100%.

In addition to a million gallons of water, the swimming pool where Michael Phelps trains (and beside which I stood separated only by the trivial glass in between) has a very sophisticated pulley system above the water that connects small lines to the training swimmers.  These lines can create drag on the swimmers and force them to work harder to propel themselves forward, or they can be set to indicate to swimmers, as they swim, how their pace compares to the world record or other desired pace based on the amount of tension felt from the lines.

The workout room likewise has everything you can imagine, including 200-pound dumbbells.  Even Dak admitted that he thought they were just for decoration until the day a weightlifter came in, sat down and curled the two of them a few times, placed them back on the rack, and grunted his approval.  My back and arms still ache just thinking about it.

I always enjoy the Olympics and cheer loudly and proudly for our team but for 2016, after this experience, I am more engaged and excited than ever before – Go Team USA!

© Michael L. Collins

*This column was originally published in the August 10, 2016 edition of The Mountain Press.



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