September 21, 2023

Sports Tourism

Clermont Is on the Fast Track

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.

Amy Keller | 7/1/2009

The National Training Center has attracted a cadre of elite athletes since opening in 2001, including Olympic hurdler Damu Cherry (above). Among other big names who’ve trained there are Hunter Kemper, a triathlete who competed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic games, and Sheila Taormina, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist in swimming who also competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic games as a triathlete. Track-and-field stars Veronica Campbell-Brown, Tyson Gay and Jeff Demps have also trained there. [Photo: Kelly LaDuke]


Amy Keller vs. Lance Armstrong
Reporter tests her physical limits at the National Training Center's Human Performance Lab.

A Day in the Life
of Damu Cherry

The Olympic hurdler describes her training regimen and what it was like to compete at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
On a warm March morning in central Florida, James Loaring and a half-dozen other Canadian triathletes trek down to the glistening National Training Center in Clermont. Fresh off a long bike ride through the area’s rolling hills, including a slope called Sugarloaf Mountain, the Canadians continue their workouts in the facility’s 70-meter pool. Meanwhile, other elite jocks, running the gamut from swimmers to soccer players, javelin throwers, sprinters and shot-putters, exercise in the nearby weight room. Among the celebrity athletes training there — Loaring calls them “background entertainment” — is Olympic hurdler Damu Cherry, a Tampa native who moved to Clermont to train at the center and who recently qualified for World Championships in Berlin.

A quarter-mile down the hill from the center’s main building, dozens of women softball players work out on another part of the center’s 300-acre campus, a four-field softball complex where college teams from around the country come to train. Samantha Simpson, a sophomore pitcher and outfielder at Indiana Tech, was among those training there earlier in March, sweating in shorts even as snow covered third base on her school’s diamond back home in Fort Wayne. Becky Norris, head softball coach at Indiana Tech, has brought her two squads down to the National Training Center for the past two years, spending about $20,000 on flights, hotels, vans and tournament fees to get a head start on practicing for conference games that won’t begin for another few months. “It’s a great complex. I know our athletes love the way they take care of their fields,” says Norris.

Clermont hosted its first triathlon in 1984. By 1991, the town’s climate and rolling hills were attracting thousands of triathletes a year — creating a new industry for the town in sports tourism. [Photo:]

Fred Sommer [Photo: Kelly LaDuke]
Twenty-five years ago, Clermont was a fading citrus town with little to brag about aside from good bass fishing and swaths of cheap land left barren by a series of freezes that had devastated the region’s orange groves. Business was so slow that downtown stores often closed early on Wednesday afternoons. The local hospital was so small it lacked an obstetrics and gynecology department — women had to travel 30 minutes to Orlando to deliver a baby. The bikes around town were Schwinns, not the $8,000 models used by the triathletes who rent rooms at a new Fairfield Inn and Suites near the training center.

The town’s evolution into a hub for what’s now called “sports tourism” began with a local sports enthusiast, Fred Sommer. In the early 1980s, the lifelong Clermont resident began participating in triathlons — the grueling, three-segment races consisting of swimming, biking and running. Sommer realized that his hometown’s gently sloping hills, mild winters and numerous lakes provided a perfect venue for the competitions — and as a training site. In 1984, Sommer organized his first race in Clermont. By 1991, Clermont was drawing thousands of triathletes each year. “People started moving out here,” he says. “We had real estate people who’d stop me on the streets and say ‘I just sold a house to one of your triathletes.’ It really started the ball rolling.”

Tags: Dining & Travel, Central, North Central, Education

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