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Clermont Is on the Fast Track

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]


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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: LepowPhoto.com]

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.”

[Photo: LepowPhoto.com]

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]

A home run

Though Clermont remains a Mecca for triathletes, women’s softball has emerged in recent years as perhaps the National Training Center’s hottest athletic niche. Dot Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon and two-time Olympic softball gold medalist, took the helm of the center in 2002, believing that Clermont should get a slice of the business that other Florida cities generated by hosting spring training camps for college softball teams from northern states. “They’re in Cocoa. They’re in Clearwater. They’re in Fort Myers. They’re also in Osceola,” says Richardson. “So I thought, why don’t we make sure we build this facility focused on fast-pitch softball, and we can multipurpose use it for Little League overflow, for example.”

» Pay to Play
Becky Norris, coach of the Indiana Tech women’s softball program, says she spent $20,000 on travel, lodging and tournament fees for two squads (40 players) she brought to Clermont’s National Training Center in March. Teams also can buy training packages. A $1,000 softball package, for example, provides the team with three one-hour “sports performance training” sessions and use of the center five days a week. Dot Richardson, who provides motivational talks with teams for $300, is an equally big draw: “Our athletes get to meet an Olympic gold medalist. What a motivator,” gushes Norris.

Food is also key to the financial success of the softball complex. Sales of “famous angus burgers” and refreshments to players and fans provide the extra revenue needed to keep the center in the black. “That’s where you make most of your money with tournaments — the concession stand,” says Richardson. [Photo: Kelly LaDuke]

The Human Performance Lab offers an array of sports science testing to help athletes maximize their potential. The maximal oxygen uptake analysis (V02 max test) seen here measures how efficiently one’s body uses oxygen. The test costs $150.
Richardson had little trouble convincing local economic development officials that softball was a solid investment. With $2 million from the county and another $1 million through Lake-Sumter Community College, the center’s softball complex was constructed on 25 acres donated by Lake Sumter Community College. The “Legends Way Ball Fields” hosted 54 teams in the opening season, which began in March 2008. This year, 117 teams from as far away as Wisconsin and Vermont came to play, making good on Richardson’s promise that the softball program would “put heads in beds.” Since opening, the softball complex has drawn more than 15,000 participants — a boon for the hotels and restaurants that have sprung up around the center’s perimeter. “The last time I looked, over 80% were from out of the state of Florida,” says Mihalic. “It’s been a terrific investment.”

Leslie Longacre, CEO and executive director of South Lake Hospital, says business from the softball events is contributing to the overall success of the facility. “We knew from the beginning that we had to grow this business to be a financially solvent, independent piece of South Lake Hospital, and we knew it was going to take some time. We are seeing tremendous strides toward our goal of being financial solvent across the board in all areas.”


» Star Coaches

Former Olympic softball gold medalist Dot Richardson says fast-pitch softball players appreciate the remote control scoreboards, spacious dugouts and stadium field at the NTC complex.

Former NCAA All American swimmer Sara McLarty is a triathlon coach, master’s swimming coach and camp organizer at NTC. She is also training to compete as a triathlete in the Olympic Games in London in 2012.

Gymnast Brandy Johnson, a member of the 1988 Olympic team, operates a gymnastics facility on the campus. [Photos: Kelly LaDuke]
The National Training Center hasn’t hit its stride without a few stumbles. USA Triathlon’s plans to relocate its national headquarters to the facility stalled, and in 2005 the organization ended its partnership with South Lake Hospital and pulled its name off the training center. While both organizations say the split was amicable, insiders at USA Triathlon say Richardson’s expanded focus for the center bothered some of its officials, who felt that the facility should focus exclusively on running, swimming and biking. Adding to their disappointment, they say, was a lack of administrative office space for their organization, and the National Training Center’s refusal to pay more to feature USA Triathlon’s name. “Our brand was worth a lot more than what the training center was willing to pay,” says Sommer, who sat on the board of directors of USA Triathlon when the relationship “got off the tracks.”

Loaring, the professional triathlete and coach from Canada, says increased costs have dampened some triathletes’ enthusiasm for the Clermont center. “A private coach like myself has to pay a very hefty fee — it’s $20 per athlete for use of the facility for an hour — that’s been a bit of a deterrent and caused some camps to go elsewhere.”

In addition, the rapid growth around Clermont has changed the feel of the area. Once a “hidden gem,” Clermont now has more traffic both on its “bike-friendly” roads and in the lanes of the center’s swimming pool, says Loaring, who’s been going to Clermont for about a dozen years.

Despite the costs and the crowds, Loaring says his yearly sojourns to south Lake County will continue. “I know it’s caused some camps to go elsewhere, but because of the Orange Grove Trail and Lake Louisa and the rolling hills that Clermont has to offer, it hasn’t cost them too many people. For a winter getaway, Clermont’s just about at the top of the list.”