Our sunshine and stellar coaches give Olympic athletes a power boost.
Phoenix is an incongruous place for an Olympic bobsledder. It rarely snows here, and the only things frozen are margaritas. Yet for the last four years, Canadian gold medalist Kaillie Humphries has trained in the Valley with Coach Stu McMillan, alongside the Team USA bobsledders. “Training in Scottsdale allows us to use the heat… so our muscle systems absorb maximum vitamin D,” the muscular, tattooed blonde explains. “It requires less effort to warm up our muscles daily, so more focus is on the physical performance side.”
As the driver of a two-woman bobsleigh, Humphries both steers the vehicle and helps provide the initial boost of speed that propels it onto the track – consequently, sprint work constitutes much of her training, and the Valley’s vaunted year-round warmth is a benefit. In a 2010 University of Oregon study of competitive cyclists published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a 10-day period of training in intense temperatures gave participants a 5 percent increase in the maximum volume of oxygen their muscles could consume in a minute. Humphries also believes the hot Arizona climate minimizes the risk of injury.
This past fall, Humphries left the Valley to practice in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the 2018 Winter Olympics will be held in February. The two-time gold medalist wraps her training in Scottsdale this month before heading back to Korea to defend her two-woman bobsleigh title.
Humphries is not the only Olympic hopeful who’s migrated to the Valley for its training benefits – the practice is quite common. Most famously, swimmer Michael Phelps relocated to the Arizona to work with Arizona State University swim coach Bob Bowman prior to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Phelps won six medals that year (five gold, one silver) then retired, with a total of 28 medals.
In years past, Olympic weightlifters Sarah Robles and Luz Acosta, and wrestler Kelsey Campbell all ventured to Mesa to train with Joe Micela, 2012 Team USA women’s weightlifting head coach and owner of Performance One Advanced Sports Training. “Better coaches and facilities have relocated to Arizona, and thus are attracting [higher quality] athletes to come here,” Micela says. “The temperature here in the Valley is ideal to train outside year-round.”
Olympic triathlete Ben Kanute is taking full advantage of the sunshine after relocating in 2017, working out for up to 30 hours per week near his home in North Phoenix. “I was not born with any special talent, and actually finished in the back half of a lot of races growing up,” says Kanute, who finished his first race at age 8. “I just loved the sport and wanted to be the best racer I could be.” Kanute placed 29th at the 2016 Olympic Games, finishing less than four minutes behind U.K. gold medalist Alistair Brownlee. Now 25, he pays the bills with triathlon winnings. He has a physiology degree, but his sights are set on Tokyo 2020.
Arizona State University Taekwondo Club assistant coach Jenny Quezada hopes to join him. Growing up as the child of Mexican immigrants in Mesa, Quezada never thought she’d be an Olympic contender. She credits Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for her initial interest in martial arts. “My parents signed me up for a trial month of taekwondo for my eighth birthday. Best gift ever.”
Quezada placed second in her weight class at the 2016 American taekwondo qualifier, narrowly missing an opportunity to represent Team USA. She currently studies with four-time U.S. Open Taekwondo champion Rubben Lolly at First Taekwondo in Chandler. “I knew I wanted to train under Grand Master Rubben after my first class with him. I could tell that he taught taekwondo with a true passion for the discipline,” Quezada says.
Humphries is gearing up for Pyeongchang with her eye on a third gold medal. She will continue training with McMillan. “He’s the world’s best coach,” she says of the founder of Altis, a North Phoenix training facility for elite, high-performance athletes. Dozens of Olympians have prepped there, including Team USA pole vaulter Kylie Hutson and Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse, who garnered silver and bronze medals at the 2016 Summer Games.
While muscle-boosting weather and customized facilities attract Olympians to Phoenix, elite coaches like McMillan, Bowman and Micela are the main draw. “More and more talent is relocating to Arizona,” says Micela. “As top-notch coaches [are] recruited to come, their athletes will follow.” Medalists may get the glory, but athletes like Humphries and Phelps share credit with the Arizona trainers who propelled them to success.
Preparation and Perspiration
When she’s in town, Olympic gold medal bobsledder Kaillie Humphries trains at Paradise Valley Community College and EXOS gym in Phoenix. Her routine:
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