Living at the Olympic Training Center

It’s been a decade since I qualified for the IPC Swimming World Championships and became a member of the National Paralympic Swimming team. That was the first time I got to experience something I had always imagined was…..blissful: being an athlete living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Indeed, that first trip (or two or three…) to the mecca of elite-athletics was electrifying. Endless, bottomless, delicious food in the cafeteria! Eating half-a-room away from faces I’d only ever seen on television! Olympians were real, live, oxygen-breathing people?! Nothing to do but swim (in an amazing pool), eat, and sleep. Fabulous. My three favorite activities. Can I stay indefinitely?

Ten years on, the newness of the experience has worn off. As I’m headed into week three of living here, with three more to go, it’s way too easy to trip into a critical, jaded mental minefield. I told a friend that being here was, essentially, a mash-up of college (where everyone is studying physical education and taking only labs), a low-tier Hilton (on account of the same bed spreads and lamps you’ll find in a Hilton family hotel – they sponsored the dorm renovation), and minimum-security jail (you are encouraged to spend as many hours as possible resting and recovering in your room and mine happens to have white-washed brick walls because it’s in the former military barracks).

In the past decade, nothing about the Olympic Training Center has fundamentally changed – except for the buildings that they’ve recently knocked down and the few that have been renovated. I, however, have changed.

This time around, as a cyclist headed to Para-Cycling World Championships, I’ve left at home a husband, a hilarious cat, and a job-that-doesn’t-feel-like-a-job. I miss them. I married a man who knows how to make amazingly delicious vegetarian food for the masses – he ran a vegetarian cafeteria at Google’s Mountain View headquarters – so, sadly, the cafeteria here has lost it’s luster, not because it’s bad, but because I know how much more delicious and interesting it could be.

The star-struck part of me is gone, too – everyone here is just a person, albeit perhaps somewhat of a mutant person. Some are insanely tall and have a vertical leap of about five feet, some have unparalleled aerobic capacity, some can lift unimaginable amounts of weight (the equivalent of eighteen Hillbilly Handfished carp?), some have funny arms AND one or all of the above. But in the end, everyone here is simply a person who will go on to live some sort of (hopefully rewarding) life once their athletic career has run it’s course.

The saving grace, for me, at this time, is that it’s the height of the summer travel season. Every day there are several groups of thirty to fifty people being led up the Olympic Path – a half-mile walkway from the Visitor’s Center/Team USA Store (where you can buy shorts, t-shirts, pens, pins, and coffee mugs) to the lawn outside the cafeteria (where you are greeted by a sign that tells visitors that they are not allowed any further). At various stops along the way, the visiting hordes press their faces and hands to the tinted-glass picture-windows of the pool and the gym. Ooooh, look at the inside. Heroes in the making.

From the inside, it feels a bit like being an animal in a zoo (I’m guessing). Everyone looking at you, curiosity and interest written all over their faces. But it’s also a good reminder for the days when being here feels more like jail than like vacation: As an athlete, we’ve earned a key to the inside. Lots of people would love to be here.

When the visitors stop at the edge of the lawn, we athletes get to keep walking through the double doors into the Athlete Center. Inside, we have access to absolutely everything we could possibly need to train. Say you have a sharp pain in your knee as you are headed out to ride. Forty minutes after returning to campus, you could be walking out of the Sports Medicine building, kinesio-taped up and assured that nothing major was wrong. Ice baths, snacks for your training rides, meditation practice, massage, a trashy novel and a movie for Friday night – it’s all here. If we need something that’s not already on campus, all we have to do is ask.

Living for a few weeks at the Olympic Training Center is, I suppose, a bit like vacation, provided that your idea of vacation involves ridiculously hard physical activity and ridiculous devotion to resting up for more physical activity. It is a bit like a hotel, a bit like college, a bit like jail (but a minimum security one). For the athletes who live here permanently, it’s actually even more – it’s home. Living here – training here – is a privilege we’ve earned. Truly it is a privilege to be on the inside. So do me a favor. Come for a tour if you’re in the neighborhood, and help me remember that.

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