The United States has dominated the summer Olympic games for the past two decades, topping the medal table in each of the five Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta games. Young athletes dream of one day wearing the stars and stripes, representing Team USA on the world’s biggest stage.
But the odds of becoming an Olympian are not high. Less than one percent of all Americans made the 2012 United States Olympic team. Of the 532 Americans representing Team USA in London, 208 could call themselves an Olympic medalist by the closing ceremony, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) 2012 annual report.
The success of Team USA could lie within the grounds of the three Olympic Training Centers (OTC) across the country. Over half of the members of the 2012 team trained at one of the centers leading up to the games; 93 of those athletes won a medal, according to the report.
The road to the Olympic dream
Former San Diego State University track and field athlete, Whitney Ashley, moved to the Olympic Training Center in 2012 after becoming the NCAA champion in discus during her senior season.
Ashley made her USA team debut after finishing second in the discus at the USA outdoor championships. Her performance placed her on the World Championship team, where she finished 24th at the event in Moscow. For Ashley, this is just the start of her international athletic career, she said she hopes to be on the next Olympic team in Rio.
The facility is seen to Ashley, and many of the other athletes, as a stepping stone from their collegiate to professional career.
“It’s kind of like being in college again,” Ashley said. “It’s just helping us get on our feet, and exposure, and making sure that we are taken care of because it’s very difficult to transition from collegiate to professional if you are not sponsored out of college.”
A typical day for Ashley begins with breakfast at 8 a.m. before heading to sports medicine for about two hours to get taped and warmed up. The next two to four hours are dedicated to her throwing. Between the weight room and the field, she is pushing herself each day by training, drilling and following her coach’s instructions, to make sure she achieves her Olympic dream.
When she isn’t training, Ashley said her biggest passion is sleep.
“Relaxation is my middle name,” Ashley said. “When you ask me to go relax or take a day off, you don’t have to ask twice or question it. It’s been done.”
For Ashley and fellow residents, living at the OTC provides them with a unique experience. Surrounded by people all with one common goal, to be the best in the world at their event, sets a culture around the complex that is like no other.
“It’s like the world’s biggest social experiment,” Jared Schuurmans, a USA discus thrower, said. “It’s like a college full of athletes. I like the culture, being around athletes even ones that have nothing to do with your sport.”
Ashley and shot put specialist, Joe Kovacs, believe that the OTC provides the best environment for them to reach the next step in their careers.
An Olympian’s playground
The Lower Otay Reservoir and never-ending mountains sets the backdrop for the picturesque Chula Vista Olympic Training Center (CVOTC), which is dedicated to sculpting over 5,000 Olympic hopefuls into world-class Olympic athletes each year. The 155-acre complex provides support including:
- Training facilities
- Over 1,000 meals per day
- Recreational facilities
- Local transportation
- Sports medicine and science
- Athlete development programs.
As well as frequent users of the OTC, athletes from archery, rugby, and Olympic and Paralympic track and field reside at the center. According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, these athletes are selected to live and train there by their respective sports foundation or national governing body.
San Diego State’s current track and field assistant coach, Greg Garza, previously trained at the center and spent two years as an assistant coach there. He said that due to the training center not being openly publicized, he didn’t know of the opportunities he could have had until later in his athletic career.
Towards the end of his athletic career, that included two Olympic trial appearances, Garza said that he used the center occasionally for a few days at a time.
But, he added, having less publicity allows the center to be more elite. Even if an athlete has met the standards set by USA Track and Field, it doesn’t mean they will have a place at the OTC. Athletes are often hand selected by coaches to use the OTC’s if they see it will be a good fit. This keeps the center competitive and allows more focus to be on the athletes who are there.
The price of Olympic gold
Unlike many other countries, the USOC doesn’t receive any funding from the government and relies on the support of the American public, according to the USOC annual report. The three OTC’s receive almost $30 million from the USOC each year to support their athletes.
The transition from collegiate to professional is a huge factor in USA track and field, Ashley said.
“If you’re not sponsored out of college it’s very expensive to train yourself, get yourself to meets, buy equipment, and so on,” Ashley said. “It’s a huge cost. But what the training center does is alleviate those costs.”
But without access or sponsors, the road to become the world’s elite can be extremely difficult.
“For those people who can take advantage of these facilities it’s a huge, huge gain,” Kovacs said. “But other countries do have other advantages too that we would definitely appreciate, like the lottery system in the UK.”
Like the USOC, the British Olympic Association doesn’t receive any government funding. But according to UK Sport, the national lottery funds a World Class Performance program that gives support to athletes by:
- Providing funds to each sport’s governing body to provide program support services
- Providing qualified athletes personal awards to contribute to living and sporting costs. For some athletes, this is enough to fully support them financially
Each country has a different method to place their athletes on top of the podium, and the journey for most of these athletes starts from the grassroots.
Putting the Olympic spirit into Chula Vista youth
It’s not just the world’s elite athletes who take advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities. The training complex extends its facilities to benefit groups within Chula Vista and San Diego.
CVOTC media relations coordinator, Emily Cox, said that it’s important to share the facilities beyond the athletes who train there. This allows kids to go and try out different sports and use what they learn there in their day to day lives.
“For some kids it’s a way to get them out here and keep them healthy and active,” Cox said. “But for others they realize they have the drive to want to compete and improve. It gives them a way in and they may keep going in the sport and make the national team one day.”
Pro BMX racer and founder of Chula Vista BMX, Tyler Brown, hopes that he is able to inspire the next BMX great. With his 11 years of professional experience, including two World Cup titles, Brown is more than qualified to put the passion of BMX into children as young as 4.
“I’ve travelled the world, raced my bike, and loved everything that this sport has to offer,” Brown said.
Each Thursday, Brown holds clinics for beginners, intermediate and advanced riders. When 5 p.m. rolls around, about a dozen youngsters have already started to fly around the track as Brown fits the first time rider with his helmet and bike. The next hour consists of tiny faces looking up at Brown in awe through their helmets as he takes them through games, drills and races.
Before the beginners are off the track, the intermediate riders are already at the start line, begging Brown to let them take to the track. With their matching racing suits on and having already mastered the basics, they can’t wait to practice their skills.
As well as the Thursday clinics, open practices are held each Tuesday. Brown said that this is the night where the youngsters get to be out on the track with their idols. On Saturdays, the riders use what they learned during the week to race against each other.
Having fun is the main objective for the young riders. But for some, they have already set their sights on winning national titles and representing Team USA.