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Updated Jun 9, 2012 - 4:03 pm

With Olympics near, athletes flock to Flagstaff

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. Swimmer Oussama "Ous" Mellouli, an Olympic gold medalist, gets a 6 a.m. wake-up call in his Flagstaff hotel room every day. After a light breakfast, he gathers with teammates at Wall Aquatic Center for 30 minutes of "dry lands" strength training done outside the pool. Then it's into the water for a solid two hours of swimming, done at an intensity that might kill the average human being.

But for Mellouli and his swimming partners on this trip, the Danish National Swim Team, this is only the first of three such workouts they will do on this day there will be another one at noon, and a "really hard workout" at 6 p.m. In between workouts, the athletes mostly just eat and try to rest.

"It's been kind of crazy because this is the first time I'm doing triples, which is three workouts a day," said Mellouli, who won the gold medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle for his native Tunisia at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Even for a world-class athlete like Mellouli, whose body is trained to go farther, faster and harder than most people could ever dream of going, the training schedule can be taxing.

"Some of the guys on the team went to check (the Grand Canyon) out yesterday, but I was just too tired, I wanted to stay in the hotel and relax."

Mellouli is one of hundreds of world-class athletes who come from all over the world to train in the rarified air of Flagstaff endurance athletes from runners to swimmers to cyclists. And with this being an Olympic year, there are more Olympians and Olympic hopefuls training here than ever before. They come initially for the air or lack thereof but they return because of the city and the experience they have here.

Flagstaff is an endurance athlete's Mecca. It has an ideal elevation of 7,000 feet, relatively easy access to an international airport, wonderful nearby diversions, including the Grand Canyon and Oak Creek Canyon, high- quality training facilities at NAU and a vibrant university atmosphere. It also has a tight-knit community of resident athletes and is relatively low-key compared to other high-altitude training cities such as Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and Boulder, Colo.

"I find (Flagstaff) to be, really, the best altitude training spot," Mellouli said. "Because the altitude is nice, 2,100 meters high, and the facility is great and you have a little town you really don't feel like you're at altitude when you look around because it's like a normal setting."

Added Mellouli: "That's the thing that can really be heavy on athletes, especially when they go on a three-week training camp at altitude and it's like being secluded. You can feel like you're really disconnected from the world, which you don't feel as much here. It's more like, you're in a town and people are around and it's kinda cool."

Sean Anthony, whose Flagstaff-based sports consulting company, HYPO2, provides logistical support to athletes, says that in the last year alone, 47 international teams have trained in Flagstaff, representing 18 different countries: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Switzerland and the United States.

Ever since distance-running legend Jim Ryun first brought attention to Flagstaff by training here for the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in 7,349- foot-high Mexico City, endurance athletes have been flocking to the city in greater numbers every year.

Recognizing the potential of their city, the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce began to look at ways to promote Flagstaff as a high-altitude training site in the mid-80s, and the result was the Center for High Altitude Training (CHAT), which opened its doors in 1994.

Operating out of the old Lumberjack stadium offices, CHAT provided athletes with a host of services, including biomechanical analysis, sports medicine care, massage therapy and ancillary training as well as access to facilities such as the Walkup Skydome, the Wall Aquatic Center and the stadium track.

In 2004, the U.S. Olympic committee designated CHAT as an official Olympic training center, which allowed it to provide funding for training to U.S. runners who met certain time standards, several of whom established residency in Flagstaff.

But despite its success and popularity, the center was not a profitable entity. After the Legislature forced budget cuts, NAU decided it could no longer afford to run CHAT. It cut off its funding in January 2009, and the USOC rescinded its official designation.

Anthony, who was employed by CHAT for 12 years, had left to form his own sports consulting company, HYPO2, six months before the center closed. As an assistant director in charge of the international program at CHAT, Anthony had built relationships with many international teams over the course of several years, so when NAU closed CHAT, Anthony started receiving phone calls.

"All the international teams that used (CHAT) started coming to me saying, 'Are you still based in Flagstaff?' and 'Are you in a position to be of help to us?' and I said, 'Yeah, I could be,'" Anthony said.

So Anthony and his colleagues retooled their mission to cater to all the international teams of athletes coming to Flagstaff.

"We're an agency that coordinates all the various components of a training camp," Anthony said. "That includes ground transportation, facility access, extracurricular activities and medical attention."

With this being an Olympic year, the pace of athletes arriving in Flag has quickened considerably. Anthony says that 2011 was the biggest year ever for HYPO2, which brought in more teams and hosted more training camps in a single year than CHAT ever did.

World champion swimmers Jeanette Ottesen and Lotte Friis, who are known as the "darlings of the Danish swimming team," are on their fourth trip to Flagstaff.

"I think it's the place we've been the most," Friis said. "So it feels like coming home. It's just relaxing. You know how things are going to go when we are going to train, and how we are going to train, where we are going to train, where we're going to eat and sleep. So, it's nice to know where everything is."

Friis said that she definitely feels like she gets a competitive benefit from altitude training in Flagstaff. "That's why I keep coming back," she said. "When I go to a big competition at sea level, and I've been in Flagstaff, it helps me to push it harder."

"The training is easier than the first or second time I was here," Ottesen said, "because now I'm a little more used to the altitude; Denmark is totally at sea level, there's no altitude at all there."

Added Ottesen: "But you can't really push it (here); you have to (do) slow and easy work because otherwise your lungs are going to explode."

Both swimmers agreed that it also helps to train in a place where they can be relatively anonymous, as opposed to Denmark where they are stars.

"We can kind of be alone (here)," Friis said. "Back home in Denmark, everyone wants to be with us, so I like a lot that we can be isolated but not feel isolated."

When the USOC rescinded its designation of Flagstaff as an official Olympic training site in 2009, it impaired the ability of U.S. Olympic athletes to train here because they no longer receive funding to do so.

But, as reported in the Daily Sun last year, Flagstaff Medical Center in conjunction with the city of Flagstaff, NAU and Flagstaff Unified School District, are working on a proposal to the USOC that would bring the rings back to this city.

"The process we're in right now is getting a memorandum of understanding out of USA Track and Field," Anthony said. "The USOC has to approve the business plan, and they've got some unanswered questions that legal and marketing need answered, but we continue to strive in that direction."

In the meantime, a number of world-class runners who call Flagstaff home can be seen pounding the tracks and trails. NAU's Diego Estrada will be competing in the London Olympics for his native Mexico this summer, and Team USA Arizona supports a number of runners who are on the cusp of the Olympics.

Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall, along with his wife, world-class runner Sara Hall, moved to Flagstaff in 2010. Ryan Hall, who competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, will again represent the U.S. in the marathon in London this summer.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.


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