Communities around Florida are vying for the millions spent by amateur athletes who travel to train and compete. Tiny Clermont -- pop. 23,000 -- has made itself the epicenter of the state's sports tourism industry.
The triathlon boom in Clermont paved the way for a partnership between USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, and the town’s South Lake Hospital, a non-profit institution. Headquartered in Colorado, where the altitude and brutal winters made year-round training impossible, USA Triathlon yearned for a more hospitable environment for its athletes. The hospital, meanwhile, was preparing to build a complex to replace its smaller facility in downtown Clermont. In the early 1990s, James Michael Ray, a Clermont orthopedic surgeon and triathlon enthusiast, suggested that South Lake Hospital and USA Triathlon team up to create a triathlon-training academy in Clermont that would offer cutting-edge training and medical services to world-class athletes and local residents alike.
Hospital executives and other key community leaders liked the idea, and in 2001, after years of negotiations, planning and building, South Lake Hospital opened the doors of the U.S.A. Triathlon National Training Center. Located across from the new hospital just north of Highway 50 near the Clermont Water Tower, the 37,000-sq.-ft. facility features a 70-meter heated outdoor swimming pool, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a human performance lab offering a full line of sport science testing, and a sports medicine and rehabilitation clinic.
With funding from the state Legislature in 2001, the NTC also built a state-of-the-art, 400-meter outdoor track — constructed as a free-standing oval, the true Olympic shape, rather than the curved rectangle typically found in the U.S. around football fields. The million-dollar track is composed of a spongy composite substance called “Eurotan” that elite track-and-field competitors drool over. Local residents can purchase memberships that give them access to all the facilities.
The training center complex includes a swimming pool, weight room and a state-of-the-art, composite “Eurotan” track. [Photo: NTC]
The hillside sports and medical complex at South Lake attracted other partners as well. Special Olympics Florida moved its state headquarters from Tallahassee. Brandy Johnson, a former Olympic gymnast, leased space and opened a gymnastics studio. On an adjacent hill, Lake-Sumter Community College and the University of Central Florida established a satellite campus where students could work on degrees in nursing and sports and fitness. Enrollment in the school’s undergraduate sports and fitness track has grown from 10 during its first year to 300 today, says Jeff Duke, a coaching specialist with the UCF Sports and Fitness Department in Clermont.
“It’s a great complex. I know our athletes love the way they take care of their fields.” - Becky Norris, head softball coach, Indiana Tech
Sports have grown enough, in fact, to bolster the area’s major economic engine, residential housing — and has provided a much-appreciated buffer during the recession. Healthcare, along with its sports and wellness component, is “really the only private, critical mass industry we have here in Lake County,” says Greg Mihalic, director of tourism and business relations for Lake County. He explains that 35% of the area’s population still commutes outside the county to work. “The largest employer of Lake County residents is still Disney.”
Near the main buildings and track is a four-field softball complex that hosts visiting teams, which train there, as well as tournaments and high school spring
game program. [Photo: NTC]