By Patricia B. Dwyer/Photos by Rob Hammer
Of the 300 athletes now preparing their minds and bodies at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center-many of whom have set world records and won medals at the Olympics and other international competitions-as many as 80 will compete on the world stage this summer: the 2012 Summer Olympics, to be held in London, July 27 to August 12.
“These athletes are dedicated because they have passion to improve or to represent our country,” says Tracy Lamb, the training center’s director.
Lamb, an Olympic biathlon coach whose brother was an Olympian and whose father was an Olympic organizer, oversees the immense facility, which boasts four multi-purpose fields used for soccer and rugby, North America’s largest outdoor archery range, an exact replica of the London BMX racing course, six beach volleyball courts and canoe/kayak practice space in the adjacent Lower Otay Reservoir.
“It’s a 155-acre sports playground,” he says. “We’re like a college campus, except that everybody’s in great shape.”
Those selected to come to the training center, one of only three in the nation, are provided with coaches, nutritionists, sports psychologists, educational support and help finding a “real job.”
“They are not going to get rich doing this,” says Lamb. “These kids are highly motivated and they’re doing it for the right reasons.”
What’s it take to make it to the Olympics? It depends who you ask...so PacificSD asked seven of America’s finest athletes, who’ve been training right here in our own backyard.
Elexis “Lex” Gillette
Events: long jump, triple jump, 100- and 200-meter sprints
Weight: 172 lbs.
Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina
Alma mater: East Carolina University
Hours trained daily: 20-25 hours per week
Accolades: two Paralympic silver medals; current long jump world-record holder for totally blind athletes
Qualified for London?: “No, but I’m hopeful.”
“I was seven years old when I started having issues with my eyes. I had to have 10 operations, and after the 10th one, they didn’t know what else to do. Over the next year, I just started losing vision to the point where I was only able to see lights and shadows. By the time I was nine, that’s all I was able to see, and it’s still like that ‘til this day.”
“I love track and field because I’m vision-impaired, and it gives me a sense of accomplishment and it brings me into a world of normalcy with my friends and peers. And when you’re winning, it’s pretty fun.”
“I love riding bicycles, and that just comes from when I was a child and when I was able to see. I’ve ridden on the BMX track here. I have one of my friends, she’s a BMX rider, and she was on the track just telling me which way to go.” [Editor’s note: search “Lex tries BMX” on YouTube]
Favorite place in San Diego: “Mission Beach. One of my friends that’s taken me out there taught me how to surf, and since then we go out there and ride the waves and have fun.”
On the day after the Olympics... “Probably me and some of the athletes will find somewhere to go hang out.”
Winning at the Olympics-a tall order
Susan Francia, a Hungarian-born Olympic rower, moved to Pennsylvania when she was two. Her boyfriend is training to be a Navy Seal.
“I’ve trained in San Diego before,” she says, “but when he got stationed there, it was like, ‘Yes! We’re moving to paradise!”
Francia has excelled at rowing since first picking up an oar during her sophomore year at University of Pennsylvania. She grew up playing multiple sports, encouraged by numerous coaches because of her stature, but sitting in a boat was the first time she felt innately skilled.
“In basketball, I was the clumsiest 6'2" athlete out there,” she says. “But with rowing, right of the bat it was going well. I could finally work hard and see results, and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you could go to the Olympic team!’”
And go she did-all the way to Olympic gold at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Francia’s event: the Women’s Eight-eight women, eight oars, one intense competition. She was part of the team that holds the current world record of 5:54.7 (that’s minutes) for 2,000 meters (that’s 1.25 miles).
After reaching the top of the podium, Francia considered hanging up her oars, but the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista helped keep her feet on the water.
“My coach sent out a fleet of boats to the San Diego training center, and I wasn’t doing anything that day. It was the most wonderful experience. I think just being in San Diego, in that environment, really kind of did it for me. I was like, ‘You know what I’ll go for another round.’ And here I am, four years later.”
Currently ranked third in the world, Francia is now 3,000 miles from her Coronado paradise, preparing to win her second Olympic gold at a training facility in New Jersey.
Will there be gold Number Three at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro? Only time will tell. In the meantime, Francia’s grandmother back in Hungary, whom Francia visits every year, has more important questions:
“My grandmother will always ask me when I’m going to settle down and start a family. And I’m like, ‘Christ, Grandmother, I’m rowing!’” And winning.
Event: rowing, women’s eight
Weight: 175 lbs.
World ranking: 3rd
World championship medals: five gold, one bronze
Olympic medals: 1 gold, 2008 Games in Beijing
World records: world’s best time (5:54.7) in Women’s Eight at 2,000 meters
Bench press: 140 lbs.
Vice: Peanut M&Ms
Favorite place in San Diego: Cabrillo National Monument
Sport: wheelchair tennis
Weight: 150 lbs.
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Alma mater: Walla Walla University
Hours trained daily: four to seven, sometimes eight
Accolades: two gold, one silver and one bronze Paralympic medal; ranked first in the world in singles and doubles wheelchair tennis
Qualified for London?: Yes
“I love playing tennis. You can play with someone that’s standing or in a chair, so it’s a nice thing to do with the able-body population. It’s a cool sport to be a part of and it’s a sport you can play for life.”
“In August of 1995, I was on the beach in Redondo...and as I jumped over a wave, the wave broke and hit my legs and knocked my legs from underneath me and pretty much jack-knifed my body. I hit headfirst onto the ocean floor and I busted my neck and instantly became paralyzed. I played tennis on the community college team before that, so I was able to pick [wheelchair tennis] up pretty fast because of that.”
Favorite place in San Diego: “Bars, like P.B. Ale House. I like it ‘cause they’re also an Oregon bar, so they play a lot of Oregon sports.
The day after the Olympics... “If I win, I’ll go out. My friends and family will be there, so I’m sure we’ll go find a pub somewhere and have a good time and let loose a little.”
Weight: 310 lbs.
Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Alma mater: Boise State University
Hours trained daily: Six now, eight in the offseason
Accolades: Ranked first in the U.S. and third in the world; silver medalist at 2011 PanAmerican Games; 2004 Olympic team member in discus; four-time Championship Team member (2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011).
Qualified for London: “No, but I have the Olympic A standard, which is the hard part.”
“I don’t have to rely on anyone. On team sports, you have to worry about someone messing up. I really like to train, and it’s just been a lot of fun. I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
“I’m single. Girls come up to me downtown and ask me if I’m a charger. I say, ‘no, I’m an Olympian,’ and before I’m done talking, they’re walking away. So now i just say I’m a charger.”
“I missed a medal in Athens in 2004, so I’d really like to bring home a medal. I’m not going to do Rio in four years, so this is my last go.”
Favorite place in San Diego: Ocean Beach. I love South Beach Bar and Grill. I love Tony’s, the pizza place. There’s lots of hippies; it’s more laidback and liberal there.
The day after the Olympics... “Depends on how I did. Probably hang out with friends and family. I’ll have quite a few people going, and hopefully we’ll celebrate.”
Sport: sprint kayak
Weight: 135 lbs.
Hometown: San Diego
Alma mater: University of California, San Diego
Hours trained daily: four or five on the water plus time in the weight room or cross training
Accolades: two gold (200- and 1,000-meter sprints) and three bronze World Cup medals; ranked first nationally in the women’s 200- and 500-meter sprints
Qualified for London?: Yes
“When I started paddling, I came from 11 years of gymnastics. It started out just as a challenge, and I loved being able to train outside. There was just a really cool feeling in being able to get the boat moving quickly when you’re sprinting. It’s just always been fun.”
“I enjoy just going to the beach to hang out. I like painting and scrapbooking and keeping memories of the things I’ve done and places I’ve been.”
Favorite place in San Diego: “Walking around the zoo.”
The day after the Olympics... “I’m actually going to get on a plane and fly to Sacramento to start school at U.C. Davis. I was accepted to the veterinary program, and it actually starts on August 13th, so I literally will fly back the day after the games are done and start school. It’s going to be crazy. It’s really going to be focused 100 percent on competing-and then you have to turn that off and focus on school.”
Weight: 180-185 lbs.
Hometown: Vancouver, Washington
Alma Mater: Purdue University
Hours trained daily: six or seven
Accolades: American record holder in javelin with a throw of 66.67
meters (218' 9"); four-time USA Outdoor champion (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011); ranked first in the USA, 12th in the world
Qualified for London?: Not yet; finals are July 11
“The person who tries the hardest isn’t necessarily the one that’s going to win. It’s a competition of mind and body-you have to be calm and collected and really focused on what you’re doing and relaxed, as well as aggressive.”
“When I started javelin, I was a freshmen in high school and I had no muscles. I was kind of lanky and uncoordinated, so it was nice to pick something up that was weird, that not a lot of people did, and I could figure out on my own terms and not have to be super strong at first.”
Favorite place in San Diego: “Coronado, specifically Dog Beach. I’ll steal my friend’s dog sometimes and just watch her run back and forth and sit in the sun.”
The day after the Olympics... “My parents bought tickets to the Olympics, so probably some sightseeing with them afterwards. I think I used to be more excited about the party afterwards, but now I’m just so grateful to have the support team I have.”
Sport: hammer throw
Weight: 175 lbs.
Hometown: Mission Hills (Los Angeles County), California
Alma mater: University of California, Los Angeles
Hours trained daily: five or six
Accolades: current women’s hammer throw world-record holder with 74.19 meters (249 feet); ranked first the in U.S.; four-time U.S. Champion; 2008 Olympic team member; made U.S. World Championship teams in 2007, 2009 and 2011
Qualified for London? “I have a really good chance.”
“I love being active, i love competing, i love pushing my limits and accomplishing things that i never thought i would be able to do. Just the thrill of that is what keeps me going.”
“I’m engaged. We’re getting married August 25th, two weeks after the Olympic games are done.”
Favorite place in San Diego: “I like going to Coronado. It’s a nice, peaceful kind of a little walking city.”
The day after the Olympics... “I’m actually going to hop back on a plane and get back to L.A. so I can start getting ready for my wedding.”
Sport: hammer throw
Weight: 155 lbs.
Hometown: Spokane, Washington, but lived in Pacific Beach as a child
Alma mater: University of Oregon
Hours trained daily: two to three
Accolades: three-time All-American Pac-10 champion; University of Oregon record holder; placed top three at U.S. Nationals; has been ranked among the top 20 in the world
Qualified for London?: Not yet
“I’ve always been a speed demon since I was a little kid, so being able to spin around really fast with a metal ball and throw it is pretty cool. That’s what’s got me hooked and keeps me throwing every day.”
“Once I started throwing the hammer, there became a big possibility of being an Olympian. So the thought of being able to represent my country and wear the red, white and blue on the grand stage-it’s definitely kept me going and kept me fighting for my dream.”
Favorite place in San Diego: “Pacific Beach. I know it’s changed a lot, but it’s still kind of my home, and I know what’s there and where to go.”
On the day after the Olympics... “I’ll probably be in bed. I’ll be hungover either way, if I make it or if I don’t.