At first, cross-country skier Justin Wadsworth woke to the beat of his racing heart, gasping for air. Then he heard the purr of the generator and realized nothing was wrong — he was just learning how to breathe.
As part of his preparation to compete at high altitude during the 2002 Winter Olympics, Wadsworth, who lives in Bend, Ore., has been sleeping for more than a year in an oxygen-depleted tent that covers his bed like a canopy. Thanks to the tent, Wadsworth sleeps almost every night at 13,000 feet.
The live-high, train-low concept is common among athletes who want to improve the oxygen-carrying capacity of their blood. Dozens of Olympic athletes in a variety of winter sports disciplines have already moved to cities like Park City to accustom to high altitude.
And some Europeans who do not live at high altitudes live in altitude homes or apartment complexes. In the past, Europeans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pumping nitrogen into training facilities to decrease the number of oxygen molecules in the air.
Wadsworth's tent, which he bought, and the accompanying generator are cheap by comparison. The tent was $500 and the generator, which "scrubs" oxygen molecules from the air it pumps into the tent, was $5,000.
The generator was purchased by the Canadian National Team for cross-country skier Becki Scott, who is Wadsworth's girlfriend and could medal in Salt Lake.
Wadsworth and Scott both wear a device on their finger while they sleep that measures how much oxygen their blood is absorbing.
After 10 days of sleeping in the tent, Wadsworth said he didn't wake up out of breath. He says the tent has the same effect as skiing holding his breath.
The tent is designed to increase red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the muscles and lungs. The more red blood cells an athlete has, the more oxygen his or her blood can carry, which partly makes up for the shortage of oxygen at high altitude.
U.S. swimmer Ed Moses credits the tent for helping him break two world records this year, while other elite athletes, including top U.S. women's cross country skier Nina Kemppel, also claim the tent helps them.
Wadsworth said after 2 1/2 weeks of sleeping in the tent he could see a difference in his performance. Last January he had his best finish ever in international competition, finishing eight in a World Cup race at Soldier Hollow.
Some European racers, who dominate the sport, struggled with the altitude at Soldier Hollow. The course sits at 5,600 feet, close to the maximum elevation of 5,900 feet for a cross-country course, as set by the International Ski Federation.
The world's best cross-country skier, Sweden's Per Eloffson, skipped the Soldier Hollow race and once passed out while competing at an altitude of 4,296 feet.
"I'm very comfortable skiing at high altitude," Wadsworth said. "I think on a good day I could finish in the top 10."
Breaking into the top 10 would be a huge accomplishment for a U.S. skier — no American has won an Olympic cross- country medal since 1984.
Wadsworth said it is difficult for Americans to compete because in some European countries, like Norway and Finland, cross-country racing is as popular as basketball is here.
"It's a big business over there, and they will do whatever it takes to win," he said.
Unfortunately, that sometimes includes cheating. At last year's World Championships in Lahti, Finland, six Finnish racers were stripped of their medals and banned from competition for two years for failing a drug test.
The Finnish athletes tested positive for hydroxyethyl starch, or HES, a plasma volume expander taken intravenously and normally used in hospitals to treat blood loss.
Some speculate the drug HES is used to help an athlete who is using another drug, called EPO, pass blood tests prior to competition. EPO is used to increase red blood cell mass.
|Deseret News graphicCross country skiingRequires Adobe Acrobat.|
"I still think you can win without doping, but some athletes who win medals will be doping," Wadsworth said. "I bet at the Olympics some athletes will get caught for the first time."
Wadsworth and his girlfriend, Scott, recently submitted a petition with hundreds of signatures from elite winter sport athletes to the International Ski Federation that led to changes this year in the way athletes are tested prior to competition.
Some cross-country racers and fans argue that sleeping in an altitude tent is no different from taking performance enhancing drugs. One of the most vocal critics is Ola Joesendal, the team physician with the Norwegian speedwalking team.
Joesendal has criticized the national cross-country ski team for living in altitude houses.
"Whether athletes manipulate their bodies with doping — be it pills, gases or IV solutions as in the Finnish case — should be completely irrelevant," Joesendal told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. "Altitude houses are doping no better or worse than blood doping."
Wadsworth sees nothing wrong with sleeping in his altitude tent — he says it is the same thing as sleeping in Park City and training in Salt Lake City. By sleeping in an altitude tent he doesn't have to leave his family or incur the costs of living away from home.
"I think it levels the playing field," says Shawn Wallace, vice president of Hypoxico, the company that made Wadsworth's tent. "Is it fair that some people are born at a high altitude and some can't even afford to train at a high altitude?
"There's nothing dangerous or unnatural about what we do. It shouldn't even be compared to blood doping."
Despite the debate in Norway over the ethics of altitude houses, the Norwegians will use equipment when they come to Salt Lake that allows their athletes to sleep at whatever altitude they choose, including sea level.
The Norwegians have even hired an American, Jim Stray-Gunderson, who is renowned for his research on altitude training, to help them prepare for the Olympics.