Not everyone can afford to go to the Olympic Games. But fans still can get an Olympic thrill or two by visiting the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
You might even run into someone famous — or about to be famous.
Check out the faces as these young athletes walk by. Do it politely, surreptitiously, but remember them. You’ll probably see them on TV one of these days.
That’s the advice of veteran tour guide Margaret Johnson as she whisks a group of visitors through the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
(Hey, isn’t that guy walking across the compound Rulon Gardner, gold medal Greco-Roman wrestler? Johnson confirms it.)
Johnson is a shameless cheerleader, an avid fan and motherly protector of the young athletes who come here seeking the training they need to achieve greatness. Maybe, even, a medal at some future Olympics.
“But whether or not they get a medal, if we send them to the Olympics, they become known thereafter as Olympians,” she says.
Free one-hour tours allow the world at large to see what it’s like to be an Olympian in training.
The complex in Colorado Springs is one of three Olympic training centers in the country. The others are in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Chula Vista, Calif.
The facilities here, serving 180 residents and about 7,000 visiting athletes a year, are primarily used for indoor sports, such as volleyball, shooting, gymnastics, tae kwon do, weight-lifting, wrestling and judo. The nearby Colorado Springs World Arena also is a second home to ice skaters. But the Velodrome in the city’s Memorial Park, as well as city streets, are a training ground for world-class cyclists.
Tours begin at the visitor center, where a brief inspirational film makes you want to get up and wave a flag — not just out of patriotism, but out of pride in these fine young athletes and their sometimes astounding accomplishments.
Then, a tour guide (they call them ambassadors) takes groups through the complex, so visitors can see where the athletes live, eat, work and play. Their days are full and structured, and community service is part of what’s expected of them.
When the complex, a former military installation, was sold to the U.S. Olympic Committee for $1 by the City of Colorado Springs in 1978, it was pretty basic.
Now, athletes train in world-class facilities and live in suites supplied with cable television, computer hook-ups, unlimited telephone privileges (they can call anywhere for free), and excellent food.
“It’s sort of like being back in college,” says Tayyiba Haneef, a young woman who would stand out in any crowd. At 6 feet, 7 inches, she’s the tallest member of the U.S. Women’s Volleyball team and hails from Laguna Hills, Calif.
The food on campus is good, and dorm-style housing well-maintained.
“They take really good care of us,” says Haneef, 24.
She’s been in Colorado Springs for two years and the best part of the experience, she says, is “meeting all the other athletes.”
She says watching other athletes in other fields working out and seeking perfection is inspiring to her.
“It motivates me,” she says.
On this day, in the Aquatic Center, cross-training swimmers slide eternally from end to end; in the nearby Shooting Center, marksmen (and women) aim at rapidly moving targets; and in the Sports Center, young girls are preparing their rhythmic gymnastics programs for a weekend competition.
Though they are not heavily advertised, the Olympic Training Center and other nearby facilities, such as those at the U.S. Air Force Academy, often are the sites of national competitions. Many of the events are free.
As the tour wends its way back through the complex, Johnson shares stories about athletes who have overcome adversity.
“Let me just say, if you’re looking for role models, you’ll find them here.” Before you begin the tour, or when you’re finished, visit the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in the $8 million visitor’s center, which opened in 1998.
The U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame is part of the visitors center, which includes memorabilia displays and information on all American Olympians.
Visitors come away with a new appreciation for the training, the skill and the dedication it takes to become an Olympic contender.
“We like to say, the Olympics are not just every four years, they’re every day,” Johnson says.
If You Go
To make reservations, get see visiting hours, request information or get directions, call 1-888-659-8687 or 1-719-866-4656. Or go online to www.teamusa.org.
For stories about athletes in training, log on to www.teamusa.org.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.