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I Was a Middle-Aged Olympian—For A Weekend

An age-grouper goes back to school at USA Triathlon’s Fantasy Camp. What is the Olympic Training Center really like?

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The third time I woke up on the edge of the bed, teetering over the frayed, mottled-pumpkin-colored carpet, I thought to myself: Rulon Gardner must’ve slept here. That would explain why the mattress slopes toward the floor, its concave outer half flattened like a slab of memory foam with late-stage dementia.

And then it dawned on me: Holy crap! Maybe Rulon Gardner, the most inspiring 6’2”, 265-pound Greco-Roman wrestler in Olympic history, really did sleep here. Literally. Way back in 2000, on the very same mattress, when he was training to win gold.

Which pretty neatly sums up my experience at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center as part of USA Triathlon’s annual Fantasy Camp. Spending five days training at the gated compound in Colorado Springs is equal parts college flashback and pinch-me fandom.

The flashbacks started when I opened the door to my dorm room, a cozy two-person unit with whitewashed cinder-block walls, a window only a weightlifter could open, and a shared bathroom down the hall. Granted, there was a TV and mini-fridge in the room, but it was immediately apparent that our Olympic-hopeful athletes aren’t living in the lap of luxury. The only missing reminders of my freshman year were a dozen empty cans of Meister Brau and my battered dot-matrix printer.

The spartan vibe continued down at the cafeteria. After topping off a dinner of tilapia and broccolini with a few energy bars, I texted a friend who’d spent time at the training center. Her snarky reply: “I don’t think they keep the athletes skinny by having amazing food.” (They do, however, supply our athletes with unlimited soda, courtesy of two dispensers provided by a sponsor whose tasteful plaque hangs just outside the dining room entrance.)

The author and camp attendees practice a running drill with Bobby McGee. (Photo: Mackenzie Brown/USAT)

But you don’t go to “Olympic City” for a bed-and-breakfast experience. You go for the goosebumpy euphoria of diving into a 50-meter pool where Katie and Ryan and Simone and Caleb and Michael honed their strokes. You go for the chance to rub elbows over ice cream with future medal winners who’ve just come from a boxing workout. And you go because you might just walk past the gym one afternoon and—by sheer dumb luck—peer through the window to see our women’s wheelchair basketball team facing off against the Canadians. And when your credentials let you slip in for the second half, you just might witness so much tenacity and skill that you take away a month’s worth of inspiration for your own workouts.

This is the tourist part of USAT’s Fantasy Camp, and I would’ve come home a happy camper after getting those goosebumps. But there’s also the training part of Fantasy Camp, and that’s worth every other penny of the $2,500 you’ll pay to join the 15-20 other triathletes of all skill levels who show up from across the country to learn from the same coaches who train our top triathletes and runners.

Every day at Fantasy Camp was packed with activity, typically starting with a vigorous morning swim led by Mr. Effervescence himself, the decorated triathlete Andy Potts. After breakfast, we suited up for a no-drop bike ride to Garden of the Gods (or some another scenic destination, depending on the day), or headed to the fitness center for a skills session with legendary running coach Bobby McGee. There, we learned the latest techniques for mobility, recovery, form, and more. (I came away with two tricks for optimizing aid station stops along with advice to increase my run cadence.) Following lunch and some down time, we reassembled for a sturdy afternoon run or ride, usually with some race-specific instruction mixed in. In the evening, we peppered Bobby and Andy with questions about the mental game over dinner and Gatorade (or beer—an upside to not really being an Olympian).

Andy Potts shares his wisdom. (Photo: Mackenzie Brown/USAT)

For a busy 50-something with an exceedingly ordinary VO2 max, Fantasy Camp was as close as I’ll ever come to experiencing the life of a pro triathlete. For a handful of days, I got to train nonstop with world-class coaches in state-of-the-art facilities, ignore my phone, and think about nothing other than the next swim, ride, run, meal, or nap.

Will the brief exposure to better coaching help me lower my long-course PR? I can’t say for certain, but I’ll be thinking of Rulon and Katie and Bailey Moody (look her up) when I toe the line later this summer. And I’m damn sure that’ll be plenty of motivation.