Olympic Training Center

asked me to describe the program here at the Olympic Training Center, so I’m going to try.

The US Olympic Committee, the governing body for sponsoring American athletes to the Olympics, has a number of affiliated National Governing Leagues (NGL), which run certifying and qualifying competitions for the relevant sports. Each sport holds competitions, runs tournaments, and eventually chooses the team, at least in theory on the basis of which players are going to work out best and win medals. As part of this effort, most of the NGLs run a series of athlete training programs at one of the four Olympic Training Centers in the US, particularly in the run-up to an Olympic year. Most of the centers, as I understand it, are located in places where there are complicated environmental conditions, in order to cope with complicated environmental conditions wherever the games are being held. Colorado Springs is 6000 feet above sea level and in a desert, which makes for some athletic challenges; Lake Placid is cold almost all the time, and so on. Different NGLs are affiliated with different sites, as well.

The Colorado Springs center is on a fat, L-shaped patch of ground, with a cluster of buildings in the center providing the homes for the Olympic Swimming program, the Olympic Shooting Sports, some basketball facilities, wrestling facilities, a visitors’ center, the Paralympic Library, and the main dining hall and Athlete Center. Running through the center of this cluster of buildings is the Olympic Walk, which is a series of painted steel sculptures showing all of the Olympic sports, and plaques detailing the programs at the OTC. To the west are the Rocky Mountains (both Pike’s Peak and Cheyenne Mountain are visible from campus, though not all the time). The Visitors’ Center contains an art gallery and the Olympic Hall of Fame, and the building is surmounted by a dome where the Olympic Fire burns during the Olympic years. Around the edges of the campus, mostly in the skinny vertical of the L, are the dormitories for athletes.

Currently, Colorado Springs is in the middle of its wet season, so there have been rain storms, and thunderstorms most every day. The Olympic Walk, with its steel sculptures, is in fact a large collection of lightning rods within a very small space, and the walkway is pocked with burnt, pitted marks from lightning strikes. There have been two such strikes within the walkway during my time here (I saw one of them hit). It seems appropriate that the place where the best athletes in America train and prepare for the world’s greatest athletic competition literally draws the lightning out of the sky to rock their world.

The USFA, the NGL for fencing, is affiliated with Colorado Springs, and in fact the national offices are located in a building on the campus here. The USFA is in the middle of a massive growth spurt. People all over the country are taking up fencing, and they come from all age brackets. Five years ago, the USFA set up 30 fencing strips (the equivalent of a basketball court for basketball, the surface on which the bout is fenced), and wound up needing 36 for all the registered competitors. At the Summer National competition this year, the USFA planned on setting up 60 fencing strips, and discovered, based on the number of entrants, that they needed almost 80.

But… that growth spurt is hitting a snag. People coming to fencing from all over the country are learning different techniques, different tools, and different names for their actions and drills. The fencers themselves wind up having to re-adjust to the individual coaches every time they change schools or clubs or instructors, because what one instructor calls a disengage another coach calls a degagé, and another may use the Italian term. It makes it very hard on the fencers, and it leads to a lower quality of fencer for the national team at the Olympics, because they’ve all learned slightly differently.

Hence, Coaches’ College. For three weeks every summer in non-olympic years, the USFA runs a coaches’ college here. A dozen of the best fencing instructors from around the country (mine this week is from Duke University) converge for a week or two or three, and teach … NOT fencing skills, but coaching skills.

This means that I’m learning how to cue a student, and teach him all of the basic and necessary moves: How to do foot work. How to do blade work. How to run drills. How to incorporate different types of movements into an extended phrase. How to correct a student’s mistakes. How to use different types of teaching methodologies. How to train yourself to be not a better fencer, but a better coach.

A certain amount of this involves getting comfortable with the language of fencing. They are clearly trying to standardize the language of fencing, so that a disengage one-two is taught the same way at every USFA-sponsored club in the nation. This means a greater degree of commonality among programs across the country, but it also means that more fencers will develop a minimum level of competence across the board; there will be a basic skill set most every fencer will have in every competition; in addition, the ranking system (the system for grading individual fencers) will mean more, because the novice fencers will be more generally competent and capable, and therefore (at least slightly) harder to beat. No more free rides to get to national competitions.

Pass the exam at the end of the week of coaches’ college, and you get certified. This year I’m trying to get certified as a level I Foil coach; next year I might try to get certified as a level II foil/level I epee, and maybe the year after as a level III. Level IV coaches do several internships to learn how to coach other coaches.

Level V, the highest level other than Black Star which is for coaches with students in the top thirty-two fencers in the country, is only open to coaches who develop their own fencing curriculum which successfully takes a student from a beginner to a ranking in a national competition.

It’s now late, though, so I’m going to have to go find a study group and work on my definitions, my language and my blade work. Footwork is for tomorrow’s study session.

In the meantime, the altitude and the dryness are finally getting to me. I have the altitude headache and the dryness headache, and apparently there’s a bit of a head cold going around the campus, despite all the dry-antiseptic gel stations all over the place.

Istemi, does that answer your question?

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