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Stars shine brightly in Flagstaff — Olympic stars, that is

Stars shine brightly in Flagstaff — Olympic stars, that is

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The runner flew down the Forest Avenue hill, ponytail bobbing in the breeze. Her stride long, her cadence metronomic, she eased up at the Highway 180 intersection and reached over to pause her watch and wait for a traffic break. Barely breathing hard, from the looks of things.

She did not have to wait long, maybe three seconds. Cars stopped in both directions and, as the runner crossed and resumed her swift lope east on 180 with a curt nod of acknowledgment, drivers seemed to pause a beat longer to take in the sight of what clearly was not just another hobby jogger.

This being Flagstaff, of course, most anyone could have guessed that it was an Olympic runner — in this case Molly Seidel, a marathoner on the U.S. team.

Such sightings have become commonplace in town, especially in the waning weeks before the Olympics, which start next week in Japan.

Hey, isn’t that middle-distance star Elle Purrier St. Pierre blowing through intervals at Buffalo Park, and isn't that Japanese marathoner Suguru Osako kicking up dust on a pine-studded trail? And, yeah, that had to be distance star Rachel Schneider and her coach, Mike Smith, churning up Waterline Road to the Inner Basin. And did British Olympic champ, Sir Mo Farah, really leave his phone at a local health club — again?

Flagstaff may be famous as a dark-sky community, where stars shine brightly in the evening sky, but stars of a less celestial nature often can be spotted — even if, given the relative lack of attention paid to Olympians by average sports fans, people may not recognize that the strapping man sipping a latte at Tourist Home is six-time Olympic Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli or that the large group at Diablo Burger is a gaggle of Canadian distance runners.

Athletes come, primarily, for the altitude, Flagstaff being situated in that elevation sweet spot between 7,000 to 8,000 feet for naturally (and legally) boosting red blood cells. But they also come for the facilities, not only at Northern Arizona University and the lower-altitude track down in Sedona, but the full-service athletic complex that is Hypo2 Sports on McMillan mesa, a one-stop shop for physical (and psychological) therapy, massage, strength training, performance assessment and blood work.

Flagstaff has been a pre-Olympic magnet for endurance athletes — not just runners, but some swimmers and triathletes and the occasional tennis player — since the 1968 Games in high-elevation Mexico City drew competitors wanting to acclimate. Since the early 2000s, though, not just individual athletes but teams from across the globe, the Middle East to Scandinavia, Asia to Australia, have flocked to Flagstaff.

What first buttressed Flagstaff’s reputation was the erstwhile Northern Arizona University-run Center for High Altitude Training, which ran from 2005 until 2009, when NAU nixed the facility to, according to a statement at the time, save $230,000 a year during a budget shortfalls.

Into the breach came Hypo2 Sport, a privatized version of the training center begun in 2009 by Sean Anthony, one of the founding employees of the short-lived NAU program.

Anthony is something of a valet to the stars, a genial 40-something guy with a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard and a velvety Alec Baldwin-type of voice.

In addition to overseeing a stable of exercise physiology experts, Anthony, whose degree is in business, not exercise science, is the point of contact for athletic federations and individual performers, making sure their track times are secured, strength sessions supervised, testing performed and logistical details (airport rides, lodging needs, dinner reservations) handled.

“Part of my job is just greasing the wheels and making things easy for them,” Anthony said. “It’s like event management; if you’re doing your job properly, no one will even notice. Mike Smith (NAU cross country coach and former co-worker at the High Altitude Training Center) and I used to talk about being magical elves. Facility gates will magically open, someone immediately comes to pick you up from the airport and whisks you to your hotel, a phlebotomist comes magically to take your blood and get your results the next day. Magical elves.”

He does it all, essentially, schmoozing with Sedona school officials to open the high school track, smoothing things over with NAU about pool use and scheduling weight-room times for the two local teams, Hoka NAZ Elite and Under Armour Dark Sky, and the rotating cast of out-of-town elites swooping in for three-week stays.

Training amid the pandemic

By now, with the Tokyo Games starting July 23, Anthony can exhale and reflect on another Olympic cycle completed, though this one highly unusual given the vicissitudes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the canceled trips from sports federations around the globe, the scaling back of plans by domestic teams such as Nike Bowerman Elite and Mark Coogan’s New Balance group, the dry-docking for more than a year of any Olympic swimmer splashing around the NAU pool.

Still, even with the pandemic putting a crimp in the sheer volume of elite athletes lurking in town, Anthony reports that more than 190 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from 27 countries have trained in Flagstaff during this Olympic cycle, surprisingly close to the number that visited in the lead up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

There are other options: Colorado Springs, the official U.S. Olympic Committee training center at 6,035 feet above sea level, and high-altitude venues in St. Moritz, Switzerland (6,089 feet) and Park City, Utah (7,000 feet). But, in non-travel-restricted times, Flagstaff seems the preferred choice for many teams.

Anthony admits his Hypo2 team — physical therapists, a sports psychologist, exercise physiologists, massage therapists — has about as much business as it can handle, especially considering that Hypo2 also provides services to non-elite locals with balky hamstrings.

In fact, before the pandemic hit in March of 2020, the business was bracing for what Anthony called an unprecedented influx of elites.

“We had the Brazilian swimmers, the Italian national team, the Japan swim club preparing for national selection process and the Canadians were just about to come, and we had to cut those training camps short and getting those people out of town,” Anthony recalled. “I remember posting to Facebook with a graphic of all the logos (of National Federations) now not coming. We canceled 19 training camps.

“A lot of teams planning to come that next month were freaking out because this was an important part of their preparation, altitude training snatched away, and they were wondering, ‘Are the Olympics even going to happen?’”

The Games did not happen, having been postponed to 2021. It was a blow to all athletes, of course, and even when some pandemic restrictions eased, travel was tricky, and many federations decided not to risk it. But other groups took the plunge and headed to Flagstaff once more, including the Bowerman Group — dominant last month’s Olympic Trials — which brought 18 athletes, according to Anthony.

The Canadian team, too, made its return, including what distance coach Heather Hennigar called its “final phase camp” from late June to mid-July.

Flagstaff over St. Moritz?

“We did look during the pandemic, when we couldn’t travel, for options in Canada, but they just don’t have the infrastructure at the elevation that you need, between 6,000 and 8,000 feet,” Hennigar said. “There are only two locations in the world right now — St. Moritz, which is a little lower but has great infrastructure — and Flagstaff.

“Flagstaff is our choice," she said. "We have relationship with Sean and the city. It’s got the elevation, the infrastructure, the facilities, access to endless trails, Hypo2, everything. Flagstaff is a known quantity. Most of our athletes have used this throughout the year and years before. If there’s a medical concern, we can access anything we need, plus the lower elevation track in Sedona. It’s difficult to get that combination anywhere else.”

The personalized attention, she added, doesn’t hurt, either. One recent  day, Anthony, donning an official red “Canada” workout shirt, accompanied about 10 Canadian distance runners to the track at Sedona Red Rock High School — just, as he said, to make sure the agreed-upon workout times were honored by the school district and other athletes seeking to do workouts.

“Part of what I do is relationship-building,” he said. “I was on the track with the operations director for Sedona Red Rocks School District. I gave her Athletics Canada gear and had her come out and watch the team. We talked about access issues. Part of it is just getting people on your side, getting them excited about having athletes here. I met with the economic development director of the city of Sedona. The more leverage you have, you know …”

Track and pool access, perhaps, is the trickiest part of Anthony’s job. The facilities at Hypo2 — weight room, physical therapy center, etc. — he can control. Not so with other venues. For most of the past 15 months, for instance, NAU shut down its pool and track to outside users. Restrictions on the tracks have just recently eased, but Anthony had to tell various swimming federations planning to bring full teams that they were out of luck. (He did, however, get the university to let Tunisia’s Mellouli, do workouts earlier this summer.)

Tracking elites in Sedona

The Sedona connection is important because it is one of the few tracks that open its gates to the public. Plus, the 4,000-foot elevation is ideal for intense workouts, since many sports scientists abide by the “Live High, Train Low” mantra when it comes to hard efforts.

Canada’s Hennigar was able to get her squad to Flagstaff (with trips to Sedona) both in April and early July, a key for the team’s Olympic hopes.

“It’s gone from one April camp to repeat bouts of altitude here throughout the year,” she said. “And various of our athletes and coaches also can use it when it works with their periodization. The best practice is repeated exposure, keep coming to altitude to (acclimate).”

Which, pre- and now post-pandemic, keeps Anthony and Hypo2 busy.

A number of elite athletes — Sara Hall, Schneider, Osako, Seidel, Kim Conley — have bought homes in Flagstaff, and that’s not counting NAZ Elite’s stable of distance runners. Many in the past have worked out their own deals on track times in Sedona and NAU or choose to take to the roads (Lake Mary Road, in particular) and trails (the FUTS, Buffalo Park and lesser-known spots such as Forest Road 700 in Montainaire and FR 222 at Wing Mountain). But large groups of athletes representing countries need something of a Sherpa to lead them.

“When you have an individual athlete just coming here on their own, if they want to drive down to Sedona and take a chance that the (school) soccer team is out there and they can’t use the track, that’s up to them,” he said. “When we have an organized, highly structured Pre-Olympic camp, we want to have contingency plans. I want to know that the track is open, reserved for our people and that someone is there to make sure no one else is there. It’s important to these people.”

Flagstaff training shows results

Perhaps coaches wouldn’t be so concerned about shoe-horning their athletes into Flagstaff if the positive results weren’t so noticeable.

Purrier St. Pierre, a Vermont native, is a prime example. After spending a month in Flagstaff this spring with New Balance Boston teammates, building strength at Hypo2 and doing speed sessions in Sedona and at Buffalo Park, Purrier St. Pierre easily won the 1,500 meters at the Olympic Trials and is an Olympic medal threat. She also set the American mile and two-mile indoor record after a stay in Flagstaff.

In an early June story in Runner’s World magazine, Purrier St. Pierre credited a strength regimen with Hypo2 physical therapist AJ Gregg for her leap in performance. She also told writer Erin Strout of Women’s Running magazine that “Going to altitude training consistently two times a year has been a huge part of my success. They tested me to see if I’m a responder to altitude, and I am.”

Schneider, who lives in Flagstaff year-round, has credited her increased volume of training on the local trails at altitude during the pandemic for building a base that has transformed her from a miler to a distance runner, resulting in a spot on the U.S. 5,000 meter Olympic team.

By the same token, U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk splits time between Flagstaff and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and trains almost exclusively at altitude. Both the U.S. women’s and men’s marathon teams have Flagstaff connections. Seidel, from Boston, now lives here during training blocks, and Sally Kipyego, based in Eugene, Oregon, spends several months a year in Flagstaff. Men’s marathon qualifier Abdi Abdirahman splits time between Flagstaff and Tucson, and Galen Rupp is coached by NAU’s Smith and reportedly has been spotted  on trails here.

All of which makes a “facilitator” such as Anthony proud of the city’s international reputation. Beyond training, he said athletes like staying in the town, rather than in a closed-off training center such as Colorado Springs.

Some elites even have found love in Flagstaff. Two-time world triathlon champion Vincent Luis of France met his girlfriend, American triathlete Taylor Spivey, at a local coffee shop. "He took me out on a date in Flagstaff, and we've been together ever since," Spivey told tri247.com.

Mellouli, the Tunisian swimmer who has come to Flagstaff since 2012, said he can train hard in Flagstaff but also enjoy the town's diversions.

"For me, as I’ve aged and matured, I appreciate the autonomy this place gives me," he said. "I can walk around. I can go grab coffee at restaurants. Its’ not like the dorms at Colorado Springs. It’s a better lifestyle. I'd recommend it."

Anthony said he misses not having the swim teams this time around, plus, “We had all these new groups we were going to work with for the first time, like the German Modern Pentathlon team."

And Anthony, too, will miss not being at the Olympics — closed to spectators, due to COVID-19 — to watch "his" athletes compete.

“We have deep relationship with some of these athletes," he said. "I cried at the 2016 Olympics when (Japanese swimmer) Rie Kaneto won the 100 meter women’s breaststroke. I’d known here for 10 years and saw her come (to Flagstaff) as a young girl with dreams of being in the Olympics. I was there at the aquatic center in Rio and when she got her gold medal, and I wept. I’m tearing up now thinking about it.”

When Kaneto returned to town the next year for another altitude camp, Anthony made sure to take her — and her gold medal — to a City Council meeting for some civic recognition. A nice Flagstaffian touch.

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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