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Live high, train low

Sharing a home in Park City, training in Kearns prepare skaters for Olympics

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Live high, train low — sounds like a recruiting ad for the military. Instead, it's a formula for extracting precious metals — gold, silver and bronze — from the 2002 Winter Olympic speedskating events.

A small group of talented young skaters, with looks that could land them in a Gap ad or on the cover of a Wheaties box, hope to power their way to medal ceremonies next February. The fuel for their fire is in some ways simple — live high in the mountains near Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, then drop down into the Salt Lake Valley for some training.

For performance athletes to live at a higher elevation and train closer to sea level is a training concept that has been around for years. U.S. Speedskating now has the best of both worlds in Utah, an advantage few other countries share.

Live high

Becky Sundstrom misses the sound of rain and how foliage around her home in Illinois stays green long after trees and shrubs in Utah's arid environment have turned yellow and brown. She is among a handful of skaters staying at the HeRO House, named after Holme, Roberts & Owen, the law firm sponsoring the house.

The address is a secret. No photos are allowed of the exterior. One skater calls it "The Bat Cave."

It's a large, five-bedroom family home with four bathrooms, 1.5 kitchens and two large living areas. Eight skaters, male and female, can live there at once — eight different personalities in a secluded mountain melting pot.

"Ever see the 'Real World'?" asks Joey Cheek, one of several promising U.S. skaters expected to do well during the Games. He's talking about MTV's televised reality-based program that shows how a handful of attractive 20-somethings interact when told to live together.

"We're not quite as dysfunctional," Cheek adds.

What's the advantage of such a living arrangement for the skaters? Living for an extended period of time at 7,300 feet above sea level in Deer Valley can help with that physiological edge.

U.S. long-track sprint coach Mike Crowe makes it sound elementary. After about three weeks of living at altitude, the volume of red blood cells in the body has increased to the point where the skater begins to transport oxygen in the blood stream more efficiently.

For the all-around or distance skaters, it means more endurance. For the sprinters, the change means quicker muscle recovery during bursts of speed. Circulation increases and more blood is directed to muscles, helping to reduce lactic acid buildup, known more commonly as pain.

Skating standout Amy Sannes recalls using an artificial "tent-like" altitude chamber before the house in the mountains and the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns came along. The team dabbled in altitude training, but the commitment wasn't there. The U.S. took a calculated risk.

"We said, 'OK, we have to try this,' " said Crowe. But the living isn't easy.

It's somewhat isolated. They're away from family, friends and loved ones for weeks and months at a time.

They have to follow a code of conduct at the house, and coaches will monitor their activity there. A nutritionist tells them what to eat. And skaters are often up early for the long drive into the Salt Lake Valley.

But the payoff they find, over 2,600 feet below the HeRO House and just on the other side of the Wasatch Mountains, is ideally the transformation of an otherwise physically fit human being into an Olympic medalist.

Train low

Skaters train about 30 hours in a hard week — that's in addition to jobs and other responsibilities. Sundstrom, for example, takes a college course on Tuesday nights, trying to finish her undergraduate degree. Sundays, she says, are for herself — but Monday through Saturday, the athletes belong to U.S. Speedskating.

They take VO2 tests to measure the body's ability to convert oxygen into endurance, speed and power. Skaters take part in lactate profiles, max power tests, blood tests and heart rate monitoring.

They also meet with a team psychologist to help them with mental focus. The athletes can even be found rollerblading on special treadmills at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray under the guidance of specialists.

Their team doctor is Eric Heiden. He made Olympic history by winning all five long-track speedskating events, from the 500-meter sprint to the grueling 10,000-meter race, in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Not a bad guy to have in your corner during your quest for gold.

Intense workouts take place at TOSH, at the Rocky Mountain Raceway for bike races and at the world's highest indoor speedskating oval in Kearns, home to what many are calling the world's fastest ice. That's all at an altitude of about 4,000 to 4,700 feet.

General or less stressful workouts — although you wouldn't know it by watching — take place at the Park City High School track, the Prospector Athletic Club and the U.S. Ski Team's weight room, also both in Park City at elevations between 6,000 and 7,000 feet.

Now into their third year of living high and training low, Crowe and U.S. Speedskating's long-track program director Finn Halvorsen think the plan will pay off in time for 2002.

Halvorsen watches the skaters closely at the track. He compares notes with Crowe. Together they tweak an athlete's training regiment to maximize performance. Halvorsen is a fan of the team's relatively new training technique.

"It definitely will help them," he said. "You need to have science. But you're going nowhere with that if you're not applying it to a practical situation."

With summer here, training is turned up a notch. September and October will get harder. Skaters will crank up the heat even more while on the ice for Olympic trials and for competitions here and abroad in November and December. It's June, but it's almost February 2002 in some minds.

Crowe tells his group of skaters, eight in all, to focus and visualize just before a muscle-burning, lung-busting, heart-pounding 2 1/2-hour workout at Park City High School. Cheek calls it an average workout.

Skaters sit on the black track, eyes closed, seeing in their minds how they'll out-skate the competition. Everyone thinks about something different, says standout Kip Carpenter. Sundstrom rocks side to side. Except for the magpies chattering in the nearby pines, it's Olympic calm.

Feeling it

Newcomers Lucas Mills and Matt Passarella have been feeling it. They, like many speedskaters, come from the flatlands of the Midwest, a breeding ground for skaters due to its naturally ice-friendly environment.

The altitude change takes getting used to.

With humor only a well-trained athlete could appreciate, Passarella jokes about his heart rate adjusting to the new digs. "I can breathe easier now," he says. Mills, who is a poor host to body fat, has acclimated after a few short weeks.

After a Monday morning workout on the track, Crowe's skaters head over to the oval for an afternoon on the ice, joining several members of another group of skaters training with coach Tom Cushman. That's where skater Nick Pearson says he has seen the team's performance improve greatly. His coaches agree.

Crowe is feeling it in his bones. He's getting excited for the Olympics and is positive about his young team's chances. The median age is about 21, brought down a bit by 17-year-old phenom Elli Ochowicz — her mother Sheila (Young) won three speedskating medals in the 1976 Winter Games.

"I make sure I take moments," Crowe said. In a "moment," the Olympics will be in Salt Lake City. Will U.S. Speedskating be ready?

"They're hungry enough," Crowe said. Maybe 2006 is more realistic for young skaters still adjusting to a relatively new program.

"We look for 2002," Halvorsen says without hesitation. "That's our goal, that's our focus." Will skaters have that edge?

Live high, train low — it's an edge, for sure.

E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com