It was like an owl had dropped a letter through my window, the email sitting in my inbox from my coach, Brian Nabeta. I rubbed my eyes, barely believing that over spring break I would have the opportunity to train at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center (OTC)!
Known for its 6,000-foot elevation and its year-round facilities for summer Olympic and Paralympic sports, the OTC is equivalent to Hogwarts for swimmers. It’s selective, with teams having to file a request to train at the OTC no less than 12 months before the desired time.
I was beyond excited. I kept imagining different types of buildings for the dormitories, the pool, the dining hall, and the campus itself. When the 3 a.m. alarm beeped on March 26, I was about to explode.
My teammates and I passed the flight to Denver, Colorado, in a state somewhere between exhaustion and rapture.
The drive from the airport to the center was beautiful. It was short, and the entire time Pike’s Peak, covered in snow, loomed in the distance. Even as we pulled through the gate to the OTC, Pike’s Peak peeked over the Athlete Center.
To get into all the buildings at OTC, visitors need a badge. Getting mine felt like getting a wand.
One of the first things I did with my new magic was go to the pool. With 10 50-meter lanes, it could host three teams practicing at once. Since it was indoors, it was hot, humid and stuffy, and the hot tub in the corner definitely didn’t help with the temperature. At the window an inspiring sign said, “We train here.” On the left, a camera track ran halfway down the pool wall. When the camera was in place, a man would pull it up and down the tracks to videotape a swimmer.
The first few practices were designed to help us shake the cobwebs off from traveling, adjust to the altitude, and get used to swimming in a long-course meter pool (LCM). A LCM pool is different from a short course yard pool (SCY). LCM pools are 50 meters long, while SCY pools are only 25 yards long.
It was hard at first; I hadn’t swum long course since last summer, and the altitude meant that anything fast required more rest time so I could catch my breath.
I can usually count on my butterfly taking only six strokes across the pool, but here the six came and went, and I was still half a pool away from the wall!
But as the practices passed, I could feel my stroke begin to improve, as well as my ability to maintain speed while still being able to breathe. By Friday I was feeling and going fast, but it was sadly my last day there.
We swam from 5 a.m.-7 a.m. most mornings. On Tuesday, which was the first morning practice, my roommates and I poked our heads outside to see snow blanketing the stairs! The dining hall wasn’t open before practice, so after working out, our hungry bellies would drag us to the Athlete Center.
Inside the Athlete Center is the dining hall, where athletes from all different sports pour into the booths and tables before and after their workouts.
Let me say that nothing smelled better after morning practice than the eggs, bacon, toast, and oatmeal cooking in the dining hall kitchen. Every meal felt like it was a Hogwarts feast, and best of all, they had a soft-serve ice cream machine!
On Thursday we utilized the amazing video recording system at the Aquatics Center. A specialized camera got a video of both above the water and below the water. Another camera was at the wall to see starts and turns, and one more was overhead to see the stroke from a birds-eye view. The video work helped me; it looked like something you see on TV during the Olympics!
Each athlete reviewed the video with our coaches, who gave us feedback on what was OK and what wasn’t with our stroke. On deck, when there are 15 swimmers or more in the water, a coach can’t see everything going wrong with a single athlete’s stroke, so the videos help both the coach and the athlete know how to improve the swimmer’s stroke.
That same day I also really looked at the pictures that lined the hall to the pool. Olympians smiled down from the walls, much like the portraits do in Hogwarts. Some I vaguely recognized; some I didn’t know. But one in particular caught my eye – I saw my old coach Debbie Meyer holding a bouquet of flowers on the wall. Seeing her, even if she hadn’t trained at OTC since it hadn’t been established when she swam, made me realize how lucky I was to be here.
In total, DART worked out for 20 hours over five days. Morning practice was followed by an hour in the Ted Stevens Sport Services Center for strength and conditioning, then some time to take a nap before going back to the pool for afternoon practice.
We also had meetings about Safe Sport, the athlete and coach protection program, and USADA, the national anti-doping organization in the United States. Physical, verbal, and behavioral abuse, coach-athlete relationships and doping are prominent problems in sports today, which is why the presentations were so important to help swimmers stay true to a clean sport.
Despite going fast on the last day, I was sad. For many athletes, going to the OTC is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Leaving felt like the train departing Hogwarts for the summer. I guess I can only hope the coaches will ask USA Swimming if we can go again, but maybe in the summer this time, so I won’t accidentally walk around in the snow in shorts!