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High on Thin Air
Leo W. Banks
June 24, 1996
The world's elite athletes swarm to Flagstaff, Ariz., for altitude training
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June 24, 1996

High On Thin Air

The world's elite athletes swarm to Flagstaff, Ariz., for altitude training

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Early on a spring morning near Flagstaff, the foreign athletes are out in force. A pair of French cyclists zips along Lake Mary Road, while out on the lake the Norwegian rowing team is grunting through a workout. Close to town a Czech runner veers off the lake road, picks up a wilderness trail and disappears into the pines.

Elite athletes from all over the world have flocked to this quiet mountain town, which has become an Olympic training mecca. Between the end of February and the start of the 1996 Summer Games on July 19, 400 potential Olympians will train in Flagstaff. You know the word is getting out when the Bangladeshi rowing team signs up to come to northern Arizona.

Part of the attraction is the 7,000-foot elevation. Proponents of training at altitude believe it allows the body to use oxygen more efficiently, giving athletes a competitive edge. "We sell thin air," says Dr. Richard Smith, director of the High Altitude Sports Training Complex on the campus of Northern Arizona University (NAU). "But we also sell this town and its people."

The complex, a joint venture of NAU, the city and the state, opened last year. Staffers make hotel reservations and airport pickups, offer translation help, and provide mail and fax service for the athletes.

If a team needs specially catered meals, Smith's staff will find a chef to provide them. When Norwegian kayakers wanted to have their blood drawn and analyzed on the spot at Lake Mary, Richard Coast, of NAU's exercise physiology lab, rented a 10-kilowatt generator and towed it out to the lake to help with the tests.

Directing the high-altitude complex has turned out to be a bigger job than Smith anticipated. He never imagined needing the services of a retired intelligence officer. But Dr. Ben Brown, who spent 14 years as a political analyst for the CIA, has proved invaluable, counseling Smith on such matters as dealing with foreign embassies and ambassadors and handling security for international teams.

"We thought we were just going to bring athletes and coaches here to train," says Smith, a 46-year-old former high school and college football coach. "But it's gotten complicated. First thing every morning I log on to the Internet to check the value of the dollar to help with our overseas marketing."

It helps that foreign visitors are not a new phenomenon in Flagstaff, which is located 80 miles from the Grand Canyon. Last summer the city wanted to give German speed skaters permission to train with inline skates on the parking tarmac at Pulliam Airport, but some plane owners feared that the skaters would crash into their Cessnas and Piper Cubs. After watching a workout, some of the pilots were so impressed with the Germans' skill that they spent several mornings taxiing around the space to help melt the early morning frost.

When a snowfall hit Flagstaff the day U.S. rowers arrived to begin workouts on Feb. 26, Smith persuaded a friend at the highway department to plow the road to the lake. Then coach Igor Grinko needed to store the team's shells, but the trailer that Smith had delivered to the lake was locked, and no one had the key. Grinko solved that with a sledgehammer. But when the rowers pulled open the trailer's back door, they discovered that it was filled with someone's household goods.

Smith quickly ordered a replacement that arrived within three hours. Grinko was impressed.

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