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Visitors are welcome at U.S. Olympic Training Centers in Colorado, California

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Kara Patterson holds a long, heavy javelin above her head. She waits. She moves it next to her ear and runs. In one smooth motion, it flies from her hand in an elegant arc, landing way down the field as it plunges its point into the grass.

Her coach watches from a folding chair on the sidelines. "Better," he says.

Then the 2008 Olympian throws the javelin again. And again. And again.

She's trying to make the 2012 Olympics.

Here in Chula Vista, the javelin throwers are throwing, the rowers are rowing, the cyclists are cycling, the field hockey team is whacking little white balls.

It is just dawning on Americans that the 2012 Olympics are this summer.

But athletes have been training for years.

The United States offers no federal financial support for its Olympians. However, the privately funded, nonprofit U.S. Olympic Committee has three U.S. Olympic Training Centers: In Colorado Springs, Colo.; Chula Vista, and Lake Placid, N.Y., where athletes get free housing, training, dining, recreation and professional development.

Although Lake Placid's center is not open to the public, those in Colorado Springs and Chula Vista are.

So even if you can't get to the Olympics this July in London, you can see an Olympian in action.

Here's a guide:

—Colorado Springs

Where: 1750 E. Boulder St., Colorado Springs, about an hour south of Denver. The 35-acre facility, which looks like a community college campus, opened in 1978. Colorado Springs' altitude is over 6,000 feet. (www.teamusa.org, 888-659-8687)

For tourists: Free public tours every half hour, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; they last about an hour. You can see gold medals and Olympic torches from Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Atlanta. You can sit in an Olympic bobsled or try to leap 27 1 / 2 feet on a long jump. Walk past the dorms that can house 500 athletes.

Best times to see athletes train are early morning and late afternoon.

What's to see: Impressive indoor shooting range, fitness center, wrestling and weightlifting center, plus gymnastics and volleyball facilities.

Because the high altitude speeds up the dives of high divers and makes balls fly through the air faster than normal, some athletes can't train here. On the other hand, high-altitude training helps those in endurance sports, like swimming. The Aquatics Center pool holds nearly 1 million gallons of water and has a catwalk above .

Highlights: Outdoor sculptures; one that's titled "Olympic Strength" depicts the weight of the world on the backs of four athletes. Be sure to see the clock ticking down the minutes until the London Olympics and the Sochi (Russia) Olympics in 2014.

Needs improvement: A 12-minute introductory film is demeaning to the Olympic concept. Instead of being an insider look at how Olympians train, it's a boring montage of recent triumphs.

It's a jarring way to begin a tour because the film's message is that being an Olympian is all about gold medals and jingoistic American rah-rah. It's not.

In fact, the centers prove that being an Olympian is about individual hard work, sacrifice, endless practice and little glory. The marksman who can hit a target as big as a pinhole usually doesn't draw a crowd.

—Chula Vista

Where: 2800 Olympic Parkway, Chula Vista, about 45 minutes southeast of San Diego. Open since 1995, it covers 155 acres. The city's elevation is 69 feet above sea level. (www.teamusa.org, 888-659-8687)

For tourists: The training center has had so few tourists that its big visitor center and souvenir store are closed. Free guided tours in golf carts are offered only at 11 a.m. on Saturdays; it's open other days for a self-guided audio walking tour.

Visitors begin their tour by watching a little TV showing the promo film that's shown in Colorado Springs.

What's to see: Spacious, beautiful and surrounded by hills and the Lower Otay Lake reservoir, the center concentrates on the outdoor sports of track and field, archery, soccer, rugby, triathlon, field hockey, rowing, BMX Supercross, beach volleyball, badminton, boxing, cycling, kayaking and rowing. About 70 athletes live on site and 70 more are in nearby Chula Vista.

When I visited, the field hockey team was practicing, as were javelin throwers and shot putters, rowers and archers. Paralympic athletes ran on the track. I also saw the women's rugby team; rugby will become an Olympic sport in 2016.

Highlights: The chance to see archery practice up close. The archers work so smoothly and fast, you can't hear the arrow hit. The archery facility is the largest in North America. It has 50 lanes and can accommodate 200.

Needs improvement: The closed visitor center and gift shop are a downer. If more people visit, perhaps both can reopen.


Ellen Creager: ecreager@freepress.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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