Where Olympic athletes are groomed

BY Reid Forgrave • July 13, 2012

On 37 acres near the base of Pike’s Peak, a mile above sea level and not far from Colorado’s Front Range, there is a self-sustaining ecosystem of American athletes. They live here, they eat here, they train here, and in sports as varied as modern pentathlon and swimming, air rifle and boxing, they’re all prospecting for gold.

The Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is one of three official training sites for the United States Olympic Committee, and it’s the first. A tour through the campus on a recent summer day finds an array of fascinating, dedicated athletes, some who’ve lived here non-stop for as long as seven years, alongside a stunning group of coaches, trainers and support staff who are all aiming toward a successful London Games starting later this month.

You’ll meet the head chef, famous among Olympians for her omelets and chicken pad thai, who has worked here 18 years and become so close to some athletes that she recently took her own children camping with members of the women’s wrestling team. You’ll meet the full-time dorm mom, “Mama Sherry,” a mother of four, a grandmother of six and a surrogate mother to hundreds of prospective Olympians, a shoulder to cry on as well as an occasional stern voice of reason. You’ll meet the director of the sports medicine clinics, who sees 13,000 athletes a year in need of everything from treatment for a cold to a therapeutic massage to orthopedic surgery. “They’re on the front of the Wheaties box, right?,” said Dr. Bill Moreau, in awe of his patients. “And those are the only people I see.”

And if you’re lucky, you’ll see Michael Phelps in the weight room, pumping iron, like a middle-school class did on a tour last month. The middle-schoolers pressed their faces against the glass, their eyes huge at their proximity to greatness.

It’s like a university dedicated to training future Olympians. And of the 530-member US Olympic team — 228 of those being returning Olympians – most have either passed through these grounds for brief training sessions or, in the case of 25-year-old Elena Pirozhkova, who will be wrestling for the United States in the 63-kilogram weight class, have lived here nearly seven years.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know this place existed,” said Pirozhkova, who wrestled against boys in high school in Massachusetts. “I didn’t even know there was women’s wrestling at this level.”

She was in the middle of applying for community colleges when she went to a national women’s wrestling tournament. She finished third and was invited to a training camp in Colorado Springs. She did well, was invited to another training camp, then was invited to live at the Olympic Training Center with the goal of making an Olympics. Since age 19, she’s trained here non-stop while studying at a local college. In April she qualified for her first Olympics.

“I wanted to do something bigger with my life, but I didn’t know what that was, so I figured it’s worth taking a shot,” she said. “I guess we’re normal people here. But the hardest part of living here is you live with your job. You stay here too long and your mind goes crazy a little bit.”

That’s a common sentiment in this place of tall pine trees and ubiquitous Nike swooshes, a place infused with unwavering focus on the next quadrennial. And not just the athletes. When Flower Nowicki, the longtime head chef here, was awarded the highest honor for a United States Olympic Committee employee, her acceptance speech was cut short: “The wrestlers are coming to eat,” she said. “They’re going to be looking for me.”

Athletes don’t really have to leave this campus. At times that can be as suffocating as the smoke from the Colorado wildfires that drifted onto campus a few weeks back. A wrestler can spend days in a row talking nothing but wrestling. Pirozhkova talked about a two-week stint where she only left the campus once, for a Walgreen’s pit stop.

“They provide you with everything you need here, so really you don’t have to leave,” said Corey Cogdell, a female Olympic trapshooter from Alaska who has lived at the Olympic Training Center for six years. “It can become very monotonous. You don’t have a social life. You work hard, and everyone’s so focused on training. I’m pretty much married to the Olympics.”

“There’s a big countdown clock out front,” she continued, “and every time you drive in and out, you see the clock and you realize how close we are. It’s been a long four years of training.”

And sometimes life can get in the way of training. A family member of a prospective Olympian dies, and the athlete can’t make it home for the funeral. A triathlete misses the 2008 Olympics after getting a flat tire on his bike during the final qualifying race. An older athlete thinks about quitting; a younger athlete breaks the rules.

More often than not, those athletes will find themselves in the Athlete Service Center, sitting in the office of “Mama Sherry,” Sherry Von Riesen.

“I don’t want to step on the toes of parents, but I’m a connect for them,” Von Riesen said. “I get calls from moms and dads: ‘How are they doing?’ Sometimes young athletes come here and they might try to spread their wings a little bit. I tell the athletes that if they do anything to endanger themselves or the reputation of Olympians or the training center, it’ll be brought forward — and I prefer they do it.

“I kick butt occasionally, to just say enough is enough,” she continued. “But there’s a lot of pressure here. Not only are they working for themselves, but they’re working for the United States.”

For someone like 20-year-old Margaux Isaksen, who moved here from rural Arkansas at age 15 to train for modern Pentathlon, in which she will be a favorite in London, it’s hard not to stare at fellow Olympians, just like those middle-schoolers stared at Phelps. She’s most in awe of the bobsledders. Isaksen will be in the weight room, pounding away on 5-pound dumbbells, and watch one of the bobsledders benching 580 pounds. It’s humbling.

This campus isn’t a place for a girly girl. Isaksen’s fingernails are forever chipped, and she broke a wrist last year when she got thrown from a horse. But that isn’t to say that the campus of the Olympic Training Center isn’t filled with as much gossip as a sorority house.

“It pretty much is like college-dorm style, or maybe like high school, with who’s dating who,” said Isaksen, whose younger sister recently moved here to train in modern pentathlon, aiming for the 2016 Summer Olympics. “It’s a little clique-y in some respects. We like to talk. The people in the cafeteria, they become your family.”

And ultimately that’s the takeaway from a tour around the capital of the American Olympic movement. Only about one in 10 athletes who train here even make the Olympic Games. Some of the employees, like Von Riesen, will head to London as support staff, but they won’t bask in the Olympic glory. It’s hard work, these gold medals, with more people behind each Olympian than you’d ever imagine, and that’s what binds this campus together.

“They will always share the journey,” said Von Riesen. “When I see an athlete win a medal, I can’t help but see behind them the people who helped them get there, the thousands of people behind them on the podium.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

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