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A long road up the hill for Chula Vista Olympic facility

Hammer throwers, rowers, rugby players and other U.S. athletes have a home and a top-notch place to train on a hill in San Diego County. But it wasn't easy getting there.

April 21, 2012|By David Wharton
  • Javelin thrower Kara Patterson walks off the track and field grounds after a morning workout at the USA Olympic training center in Chula Vista.
Javelin thrower Kara Patterson walks off the track and field grounds after… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- Hammer throwers don't have many places to practice their sport.

So Britney Henry is happy to have this vast, green field overlooking the Lower Otay Reservoir, complete with a concrete throwing ring and, on this particular morning, a built-in audience.

A duck watches her fling one metal ball after another into the air. When she walks out to retrieve the hammers, her impromptu fan follows along, quacking.

"It's nice having this facility," Henry says. "There aren't many like it."

The Chula Vista Olympic Training Center is one of three official U.S. Olympic Committee sites and the first to be master-planned. It was built in the mid-1990s for elite athletes, many of whom compete in events that might draw the occasional onlooker, but not much in the way of crowds or television revenue.

Archers and rowers practice here. So do the U.S. field hockey and rugby teams. Selected athletes get free room and board along with access to a cadre of specialists such as trainers, biomechanists and a nutritionist.

But if the fields and small buildings sprinkled across this hilltop complex feel like a godsend to men and women preparing for the 2012 London Olympics, it wasn't always that way.

The Chula Vista center is just now beginning to blossom after years of false starts and unfulfilled promise. Just ask Jeremy Fischer, a USA Track and Field coach who stops by to monitor the end of Henry's practice. He stayed at the center in 2001 while competing as a high jumper.

"It used to be different," he says. "It was not someplace you wanted to come."

The starting line

In the grand scheme of the Olympic movement, U.S. athletes have it pretty good, receiving far more help than competitors in poorer nations. But America lags government-sponsored programs in countries such as China.

Shortly after the 1984 Los Angeles Games, a San Diego developer sought to provide the USOC with a warm-weather site by donating a portion of its holdings.

"They clearly saw the marketing value of having an Olympic training center they could point to as part of their overall development," said Greg Cox, a San Diego County supervisor who was Chula Vista's mayor at the time.

A separate nonprofit group began raising money for facilities that could accommodate 14 sports and open in time for the 1992 Barcelona Games. But a sluggish economy got in the way.

Fundraising fell short of expectations and there were concerns about a $15-million state loan, the organizers eventually putting the land up as collateral. Plans were scaled back to a more modest blueprint — no gymnasium or 50-meter swimming pool — that would house fewer sports.

"I would be less than honest if I didn't tell you there were a few fits and starts," Cox said. "But there was a committed group of people behind this."

In 1995, they handed the keys over to the USOC at an opening ceremony where decathlete Dave Johnson insisted the $65-million facility "can make a huge difference in giving our athletes a chance to compete."

Some of those athletes were not impressed. The center seemed austere when compared with USOC sites in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid.

The weight room and sports medicine clinic shared a cramped space. A significant portion of the land remained undeveloped and, over the next decade, outsiders saw little progress.

Building blocks

U.S. Olympic leaders heard the rumblings, not only from athletes but also from people in the community saying they had failed to make good use of all that donated land.

Four years ago, the USOC appointed Tracy Lamb to take over as Chula Vista's director. His mandate was to pursue the original vision. But, once again, the timing was bad.

"We were going to build this and do that," Lamb recalled. "Then I get out here and the economy went flat."

A lifelong athlete and coach in the biathlon — a sport that knows how to survive on a tight budget — Lamb refused to give up.

The USOC relies heavily on corporate sponsors and income from broadcast rights. To build at Chula Vista, Lamb also needed the national governing bodies from each sport — such as USA Volleyball — to pitch in. He found money to build one or two venues a year.

The center added BMX — a new Olympic sport — to its resident teams and constructed a duplicate of the Beijing course so racers could prepare for the 2008 Summer Games. Beach volleyball got courts on a hilltop overlooking the reservoir.

Lamb upgraded the weight room, medical clinic and a lounge, where resident athletes — the dorms have 133 beds — could shoot pool and watch television.

"It's a little bit of an athletic island," said Colin Hawley, who plays for another newcomer to the center, the men's rugby team. "Everything is geared toward making you better."

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