Metro Athletes Train for Olympic Gold
Photos by Simon Hurst
For many amateur athletes who want to compete on the world’s greatest stage, the road – and river – to Olympic glory runs right through town. Starting with Jim Thorpe’s decathlon dominance and continuing to the latter-day gymnastics juggernaut in Norman, Oklahoma boasts a long and storied history when it comes to Olympic athletes.
While there is hardly a cause-and-effect connection between Thorpe and the metro’s modern-day Olympic trajectory, their prominence in Olympic parlance is noteworthy in terms of place of origin. Let’s be honest – the average fan of amateur athletics would not likely connect Oklahoma with Olympic-level excellence. Heck, the average Oklahoman probably wouldn’t make that connection. And yet it exists … in a very big way.
On the Waterfront
Just south of Oklahoma City, there lies a ribbon of flat water known as the Oklahoma River. Since July 2009, the Oklahoma City Boathouse District, which also includes the Route 66 Boathouse on Lake Overholser, has been designated as an Official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site. The Oklahoma River site is the only river in the United States to earn this distinction. In addition, the state-of-the-art training facility at the Devon Boathouse is designated as a National High Performance Center by U.S. Rowing, the national governing body for the sport. And so it is here that athletes from around the country train and compete in rowing, canoe and kayak.
It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, the Oklahoma River hasn’t always even had the name. The waterway was known as the North Canadian River until 2004. The term “river” was used loosely – for decades it could hardly be classified as such. Not too long ago, you wouldn’t have seen much of anything on this stretch of the river – not even water.
Mike Knopp, Executive Director of the Oklahoma River Boathouse Foundation, observes, “It was a glorified drainage ditch.” Flowing water was such an infrequent occurrence that the riverbed often became choked with grass and weeds. “They used to mow the riverbed a few times a year,” he recalls. Now, from his office in the architecturally striking Chesapeake Finish Line Tower, Knopp has a bird’s-eye view of the river racecourses and beyond.
The riverfront renaissance has been nothing short of spectacular. But before you lose too much hair from head-scratching, understand that this did not happen by accident. Nor did it happen overnight. The Boathouse District’s rise to Olympic importance has been a community effort, starting with the first phase of the MAPS plan for urban redevelopment 20 years ago.
“This is really a model public-private partnership,” Knopp says. “The city built the river walk, made road improvements and built dams” to maintain water levels on the river. Private funds from lead sponsors helped build the boathouses, training facilities, public attractions and event spaces. The vision for the river was ambitious from the start. “We set a high standard,” Knopp explains. “We wanted the river, buildings and programs to be world-class.”
But before anything of substance could follow, the local citizens had to come back to the river. Once a focal point of city life – at one time home to a zoo and amusement park – the river, such as it was, was no longer an entertainment destination. Devastating floods in the 1920s and ’30s drove people away, and the river was dammed and rerouted by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent subsequent flooding. The result was … well, let’s say when the river was dammed, the river was damned.
That is certainly not the case today. Now, local citizens mingle with world-class athletes in a unique urban training ground. According to Joe Jacobi, Chief Executive Officer of U.S. Canoe/Kayak, it is this setting which sets the metro apart from other Olympic Training Sites. “Canoeing and rowing can be lonely pursuits,” Jacobi says. “Elite athletes have access to great coaches and equipment at all Olympic Training Sites, but sometimes they are kind of cut off from the outside world.” Athletes training in Oklahoma City are engaged with the community. As a result, Jacobi elaborates, “Our athletes walk away with better people-appreciation.”
using that time to recover and refocus.
This is not a sacrifice – it’s a choice.” -Alex Karwoski
The urban setting also boosts recruiting. By partnering with local schools and implementing a youth rowing and kayak program, Jacobi can introduce boatloads (pun intended) of kids to sports that they otherwise would never consider. “If a young person shows interest and ability,” Jacobi explains, “we have the resources here to grow them from beginner to expert quickly.”
While that engagement helps deepen the talent pool for the U.S. National Teams, it does just as much for the local community. For local youngsters having a hard time making the cut for their high school football or basketball teams, rowing, canoe and kayak provide another athletic option. “We hear from so many parents whose kids have found their niche here,” Jacobi beams. And due to the number of scholarship opportunities for rowing and canoe/kayak, higher education has become attainable for many students who would not have been able to afford it otherwise. “It’s a tremendous environment for young people – surrounded by Olympic athletes and coaches as mentors,” says Jacobi.
Jeremy Ivey, U.S. Rowing Coach and National Team Assistant Coach, echoes Jacobi’s sentiments. “Want to ride?” Ivey asked, pulling a two-person powerboat up to the dock. I climbed aboard and listened while he explained how the Boathouse District has been a boon to the national rowing program. Although the designation as an Olympic Training Site came fairly recently, “It’s already had an impact on U.S. Rowing,” Ivey says.
For the 2012 London Olympic Games, 6 Olympians and 2 Paralympians trained in Oklahoma City. “Our athletes love it here,” Ivey says. Local sponsors have made it possible for many Olympic-hopeful athletes to make training their job. In return, many athletes are putting down roots right here. “They are buying houses and making this their home,” explains the Newfoundland native.
After docking, Ivey led me into the Devon Boathouse and National High Performance Center. Inside the facility are dozens of exercise machines designed specifically for rowing, canoe and kayak along with exercise bikes, weight training apparatuses, an indoor rowing tank and a high-altitude chamber.
Rob Munn, a native of Redmond, Washington, stepped back to sea level after training on a stationary bike at a simulated altitude of 16,000 feet. I was winded from walking up two flights of steps, but Munn was hardly worse for wear after his low-oxygen workout. His path to the upper echelon of American rowing demonstrates how the sport can open doors.
“I was looking for a cross-training sport for football,” recalls Munn. “I was pretty good at rowing and really enjoyed the team dynamic. In the end, I gave up football to concentrate on rowing.” That seems a little counterintuitive in our football-crazed society, but it elucidates Jacobi’s point. Given the odds, a talented rower has a better chance to earn a college scholarship than a talented football player.
Munn clearly has no regrets about his choice, but he does acknowledge that rowing at the elite level certainly has its challenges. The training is grueling, amounting to a full-time job plus overtime. He finds that learning how to improve every day and staying mentally focused are the toughest aspects of training. And competition? “There’s certainly pressure on yourself to perform,” Munn says, “but competition is also your chance to bring all of that training to the table.”
Fellow rower Alex Karwoski is training for the 2014 World Championships in the heavyweight pair. The New Hampshire product also gave up a first sport – running – in favor of rowing. “There are a lot less people rowing than running,” he says with a smile. He picked up the sport in boarding school and earned a college scholarship.
Karwoski describes a training schedule that had me looking for the nearest couch: 6 days a week for 6 to 9 hours a day. He quickly adds, “You don’t really have that one day off, because you’re using that time to recover and refocus.” Whew – no kidding. “This is not a sacrifice – it’s a choice,” Karwoski concedes. “After college I figured I would just get a job, but I was invited to try out for the National Team. I’m going to see how far I can go.”
Competition for Karwoski has been a motivator for his training. “The jumps in levels – from college to the U.S. Under-23 team to world competition – were eye-opening for me,” he explains. In one of his first international events, Karwoski recalls losing so badly he equated it to “a 6th-grade AAU basketball team playing the Miami Heat.” To be fair, Karwoski’s boat was pitted against one of the best crews in the world. Still, “Seeing how much faster guys can be is enlightening,” he says.
Ivey and Jacobi describe the training as a labor of love. “Nobody out here is going to get rich,” Ivey says. “These athletes just have a desire to be the best in the world.” In Oklahoma City, they have a whole community right beside them.
In 2005, the University of Central Oklahoma earned its title as an official United States paralympic training site.The Olympic designation followed in 2009. A slew of Paralympic Championship banners hang from the rafters above the gymnasium floor at the campus Wellness Center.
This should come as no surprise. UCO has long been an epicenter for the U.S. Paralympics program. As host to the Endeavor Games since 2000, UCO has been bringing athletes with physical disabilities together to compete for 15 years. “The Endeavor Games includes athletes from ages 2 to 70,” says Ryan Siler, Development Manager at the UCO Wellness Center. The environment creates a fertile recruiting ground. “We’re looking for Paralympians,” says Siler.In addition, UCO’s Military Sport Program offers service men and women access to recreational options that help them transition to a healthy,
active lifestyle. “We welcome veterans into an atmosphere that’s safe,” Siler explains. Knowing that other military members will be there encourages participation and takes away some of the apprehension. Even better, “Participating gives injured war veterans an outlet and a way to be engaged with other athletes and teams,” Siler continues. “It’s another form of therapy, especially for the many veterans returning [from Iraq and Afghanistan] with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).”
Paralympic athletes are eligible to compete based upon a combination of medical and technical classifications of physical or intellectual impairment. Fittingly, the classifications are used to describe each athlete’s capabilities. For example, an athlete may have use of his legs, trunk, and arms but experience visual impairment. Another athlete may have use of her legs and trunk only. Each of the 28 Paralympic sports determines which impairment classes can participate in their specific sport. While some sports are open to many impairment classes, other sports are limited to a specific impairment type or a combination of impairment types. The classifications are not designed to restrict participation – they simply exist to establish a level playing field for the competitors.
There really isn’t much that the athletes can’t do, as Leigha Pemberton, Olympic/Paralympic Training Site manager explains. “Everyone can do everything because all of our sports have been adapted,” she says. Athletes without use of their legs can cycle with their arms using adaptive bikes, for instance. Equipment, rules, training and playing arenas have been modified for a tremendous number of sports. “You don’t hear the word ‘handicapped’ anymore because it’s not accurate,” Pemberton says. “There are so many opportunities now.”
The local Paralympian population has benefited from the environment offered by UCO. Heather Erickson started playing sitting volleyball when she was 13. Like regulation volleyball, sitting volleyball features six players on a side. Other than a few minor rules modifications, it’s basically the same sport. The court for sitting volleyball is smaller, accounting for players’ limited mobility. Also, the net sits just 3 1/2 feet off the floor to accommodate the requirement that players’ pelvises be in contact with the court when striking the ball.
I’m kind of 100 miles per hour or nothing,
so I have to try to set myself up for the next day.”
- Jeremy Campbell
As a Paralympic silver medalist in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, Erickson knows a little bit about what works. “We’re playing from about 7 to 9 a.m. every day,” she says. Playing together is really the only way to work on touches, positioning and other skills as a team. As for off-court activities like weight training and cardiovascular workouts, Erickson says sitting volleyball team members are on their own, but they do have a strength and conditioning regimen to keep themselves fit.
Erickson and her teammates are currently in training for the 2014 World Championships in Poland. Although the Rio Games are a bit off in the distance, Erickson would welcome the chance to earn a third Paralympic medal. “If coach asks me to be on the team, I’m going,” she said, flashing a gold-medal smile.
Another Paralympian eager for another shot at the big time is Russell Wolfe. Although he doesn’t have the Olympic medals to show for it (yet!), UCO’s resident Archery expert is among the best in the world. Where did he place in Beijing? “Twenty-ninth,” the affable Wolfe replies with a sheepish grin. Hardly a disaster when you consider that he had basically just taken up the sport. The following year Wolfe captured bronze at the World Championships in the Czech Republic.
In London, Wolfe placed 9th after getting knocked out of the competition by an athlete with over 20 years of experience in the sport. Wolfe is really still a novice – just a darned good one. And unlike some Paralympic sports, there is no difference from the Olympic version. The distance to the target is 70 meters, and the center mark is 4 inches in diameter. Imagine sinking a 220-foot putt over and over again and you get the idea of how difficult it is to consistently put an arrow into the middle of the target.
Skilled marksmen like Wolfe make it look easy, but it takes a lot of work to get to that point. He mostly relies on form training, or building muscle memory through repetition. During competition, he explains, you might shoot first thing in the morning then wait around all day for your next match. “You can’t just go to the range and shoot all day because you’ll wear yourself out,” he says.
And competitions can end quickly. In elimination rounds, Wolfe explains, “You can be done after shooting 9 arrows. It’s like March Madness – lose and you’re out.” Sound nerve-wracking? “It is,” Wolfe concedes. While some changes in format might hamper Wolfe’s chances at making the Rio games, he isn’t too concerned about it. Which is not surprising, really. After all, it takes a pretty calm demeanor to be a world-class archer.
Speaking of world-class, Jeremy Campbell is no stranger to gold. The Perryton, Texas, native took the top prize in pentathlon and discus in Beijing and repeated as gold medalist in discus in London (pentathlon had been removed from the competition, so Campbell did not have a chance to repeat in that event).
The medals only tell part of the story – Campbell is the current world-record holder in both pentathlon and discus. He’s also the first Paralympian to break the 60-meter barrier in discus. If he stays on track with his training regimen, Campbell could make the 2016 Olympic team. Yes – Olympic.
Spend a few minutes with Campbell and you get the feeling he’s just figuring it all out. “I’m just now starting to get confidence in the ring,” he confessed. “I was actually more nervous at the 2012 games,” than in 2008. Maintaining his focus during training has been key to building that confidence. “It’s important for me to find balance,” he explains. “I’m kind of 100 miles per hour or nothing, so I have to try to set myself up for the next day.”
Vaulting to Success
Quick - Name the University of Oklahoma coach who boasts the longest winning streak in any sport. Here’s a hint: his last name starts with W. If you guessed OU Men’s Gymnastics Coach Mark Williams, you win the prize. Williams’ squad put together a string of 52 meet wins between 2003-2004, just a small part of the coach’s amazing run of success.
Since becoming head coach in 2000, Williams has compiled an astounding record of 322 wins against a mere 30 losses. Along the way, OU has captured 5 NCAA Team National Championships while finishing lower than third just once. Although it is not an official U.S. Olympic Training Site, Norman has become a springboard – or vault, if you will – to the Olympics. Of the 8 gymnasts on the London 2012 squad, 5 hailed from OU. National Team members and London Olympics veterans Steven Legendre and Jake Dalton still train with Williams in Norman.
Williams is quick to credit others for his success. “I’ve picked the minds of the best coaches around and tried to develop a program that does the right thing to get the most out of our athletes,” he says. OU’s perennial position atop the college ranks has helped get newcomers on board. “I’ve had some success,” Williams understates modestly, “so the new guys buy in quicker.” Some success? Williams has racked up more hardware than Home Depot. He has coached 24 individual National Champions, including 5 All-Around titlists.
Making the leap from college to the U.S. National Team takes almost superhuman dedication. “You can’t take summers off,” Williams says, “and you have to sacrifice a lot to compete against the Russians, Chinese and Japanese” who are leading the way in the sport. The dedication runs both ways, as Williams continues to keep abreast of changes and trends. “You have to be open to how things are evolving,” he says.
The change in gymnastics scoring format represented one such evolutionary moment for the sport. Gone is the old 10-point system, replaced by a complex measure of required elements, level of difficulty and technical proficiency. A routine that earns an athlete a spot on the U.S. National Team might not get him to the medal round in the Olympics.
OU product Jonathan Horton barely made it through the qualifying round with his original high bar routine in Beijing. “We basically created a new routine for the medal round,” Williams recalled. Horton struggled to complete the more difficult routine during practice. “By the end of the routine, he was too exhausted to stick the landing,” says Williams. The first time Horton made it through successfully was during the medal round – where the revamped routine earned him a silver medal. Now, planning and practicing two routines is the new normal. “We kind of pioneered that,” Williams remarks humbly.
The 2014 Sooner squad was ranked second in the preseason rankings. And while Williams was hesitant to talk too much about any prospects for Rio, he’s pretty confident that he will once again have a top-tier college squad. “We have six new guys who are pretty good,” Williams shares. “We lost two guys from last year,” when OU was NCAA runner-up, “but I think we’ll be better on vault and high bar. It should even out.”
If things even out, look toward the top of the rankings at the end of the season. Chances are, that’s where you’ll see the Sooners. Two summers from now you will probably find them – and a whole cadre of other local athletes – vying for Olympic medals in Rio.