With international athletes in abundance, Flagstaff wants to get some of its Americans back.
After being stripped of its official Olympic training site designation in 2009 once Northern Arizona University cut funding to the Center for High Altitude Training, the process to get the title back has been a slow one.
"There are a lot of hoops to jump through," said Sean Anthony, the former assistant director of CHAT. "There's a lot of moving parts to that kind of an effort."
But with FMC acting as the lead sponsor of the financial and administrative infrastructure, the U.S. Olympic Committee is close to redesignating Flagstaff as an official training site for track and field.
Rick Smith, the original director of CHAT in the 1990s and the current vice president of development at FMC, said the hospital is about to submit its proposal in conjunction with the city of Flagstaff, NAU and Flagstaff Unified School District.
"We're in the hands of the Olympic Committee right now," Smith said. "Hopefully they can evaluate our information and make a decision quickly because we'd like to get started as soon as possible, especially with the Olympics coming up this summer."
Added Smith: "It appears they're eager to make a decision quickly. That's what we're planning on."
Since NAU cut the program's funding in January 2009, the U.S. Olympic Committee has yet to designate another official training site for track and field. Currently, there are 12 Olympic training sites -- each for separate sports -- but none for running.
If the rings return, it will only help serve the notion that Flagstaff is the pre-eminent location for high-altitude training.
"We feel strongly that Flagstaff is the best place to train," Anthony said, citing the access to facilities and short trips to lower elevation spots. "The list goes on and on. We're in a position to play a role in helping the position of Flagstaff as a sports mecca, a sports destination.
"The more teams we bring in here, the more we drive that message home."
Anthony has helped keep Flagstaff a premier training location the past couple years, despite the Olympics' absence.
Anthony left his job at CHAT shortly before the program was shut down and created his own sports management company called HYPO2. Once CHAT closed, he was there to pick up the pieces and continue meeting the logistical needs of international teams wishing to continue training in town.
This past month, he and his coordinator Mike Smith (no relation to Rick Smith) have catered to teams from Australia, China, Germany, Japan and New Zealand as the 2012 Olympics draws closer.
The Gold Coast Suns, who are entering their second season in the Australian Football League, trained in Flagstaff for the first time the past two weeks as part of their preseason conditioning program. Andrew Weller, the Suns' strength and conditioning coach, has been to high-altitude camps across the globe and chose Flagstaff based almost solely on HYPO2's reputation with Australia's Collingwood club, which has held its training camp here since 2005.
"They've got a clear understanding of what our needs are," Weller said. "For us to go and do that somewhere else, it's more problematic. I know I've looked at going to other locations and Collingwood has looked several times, but they keep rolling back to here because it's a great place."
The reasons are numerous. Weller has trained teams at locations across the globe and none matches the convenience and safety of Flagstaff. In past years, a couple of Weller's teams have suffered from food poisoning.
"The safety of your group and hygiene and food are a real issue," Weller said. "If your guys get sick, you've defeated the whole purpose of coming ... teams have come here for years and have been looked after really well and have come back in good shape."
GETTING THE AMERICANS BACK
Although the global presence has never left Flagstaff -- it has grown since CHAT's closure, according to Anthony -- American runners, in particular, have dwindled.
During the days of Olympic sponsorship, some of the biggest names in U.S. running would flock to town and stay here for months. But without the money once provided by NAU, the high-profile sightings aren't as numerous. There are still Olympic hopefuls around on an irregular basis, but they need financial support to stay in Flagstaff for longer periods.
"That's a huge thing for U.S. runners training here," Mike Smith said of getting the Olympic sponsorship. "It's huge. That's a no-brainer; that has to happen."
Jeffrey Eggleston, one of a few elite American runners living in Flagstaff year-round, believes getting the designation back will pay dividends for athletes across the country, including himself. Eggleston arrived in town just as CHAT was closing. He struggled to gain access to tracks and supported himself without much financial help. But through HYPO2, he has all the logistical help he needs. Track workouts are no longer a problem and HYPO2 helps facilitate visits to Northern Arizona Orthopedics for injury issues.
"They do really well with international athletes," Eggleston said, "but they definitely know how to take care of their own in Americans."
Because Eggleston has met the Olympic 'A' standard in the marathon, he would likely be admitted to the training site and might receive further benefits.
"(The runners in Flagstaff have) had to rely on part-time jobs or prize money from races," he said. "If we were to become a U.S.A. training center again, I think that would eliminate a lot of the difficulties or struggles of trying to find the necessary financial support."
ADD TO 213 MEDALS
At the time of CHAT's closure, NAU said that it would save $230,000 a year.
The center generated an estimated $1.5 million annually for the local economy but was never determined to be a self-sufficient entity.
With FMC serving as the financial backer, the city can add to its 213 Olympic and Paralympic medals won by athletes training in Flagstaff since the 1996 Atlanta Games. Although NAU cut CHAT almost two years ago, it remains involved by allowing access to its facilities, most notably the Walkup Skydome.
While both FMC, led by Rick Smith and Board Chairman Chris Bavasi, and NAU are vital to bringing the rings back, HYPO2 is just as instrumental. Because Anthony and Mike Smith are both former CHAT employees, they have a previous relationship with the USOC, which has helped expedite the process.
Anthony will continue meeting the needs of incoming athletes on behalf of FMC, should it receive the Olympic designation.
"We have an established track record of meeting the needs of athletes," he said. "They trust us."
THE WAITING GAME
As the process for Olympic designation reaches the final stages, all those involved are eager to finish an effort that has lasted the better part of two years.
If it goes through, FMC will be the only medical facility with the Olympic rings attached to it, which is one reason why the process has been a slow one. The USOC chooses its partners carefully and makes sure its rings aren't associated with conflicting interests. That doesn't appear to be the case with FMC.
"We are already doing a lot of physiological activities with our Fit Kids program and several of our physicians are interested in doing some altitude research and being part of the Olympic movement," Rick Smith said. "It was a good fit for us.
"The city, schools and the university are certainly equal participants. We're just taking the lead in the administration approach."
And if the rings return, Flagstaff will put itself back on the map as a sports destination for any hopeful Olympic runner.
"It would be a huge game-changer," Eggleston said. "I think runners have forgotten about the opportunity to train here."
Jacob May can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2257.