Arizona becoming a popular place to train for Olympic hopefuls

The state of Arizona is no stranger to Olympians. A string of athletes from the state has pursued the Olympic dream and made it a reality. But they have done so outside of Arizona.

Gymnast Kerri Strug left the state to train with Bela Karolyi in Texas and went on to win gold in 1996. Arcadia High School graduate Klete Keller swam for USC, trained under Jon Urbanchek in Michigan, then medaled at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. They are but two of at least 20 Arizonans who have competed in the Games, according to website ranker.com.

With the 2016 Olympic Games three months away, there is a change afoot. Olympic hopefuls have kicked into overdrive preparing for their Olympic trials with a few choosing to complete their training in Arizona.

The most notable Olympian training in the desert actually did the opposite of athletes like Strug and Keller. Swimmer Michael Phelps, owner of 18 gold medals, recently moved to the Phoenix area to train under revered coach Bob Bowman. However, swimming is not the only sport that offers Olympic training in Arizona.

WRESTLING

Former Olympian Zeke Jones, who coaches the Arizona State wrestling program, knows the elite level of competition well. He was an Olympic silver medalist in the 1992 Games, a US Olympic team coach and has had several wrestlers qualify for Olympic trials in various coaching jobs.

“Student-athletes that are looking at Arizona State, they don’t want to just be the best in the country, they want to be the best in the world,” Jones said. “They’re looking for a program that can help them accomplish their goals of becoming NCAA champions, but they’re also looking for a program that can help them become world Olympic champions.”

Jones believes that in Arizona, specifically at Arizona State, athletes have what they need to accomplish goals beyond the collegiate level.

“We don’t talk about it being a four- to five-year plan here. We talk about it being an eight- to 10-year plan,” Jones said. “As good as you want to become at Arizona State, we have all the resources to make you great – world class coaching, world class training partners and a support structure around the program that creates greatness.”

Eight athletes – several not from Arizona – training with Sunkist Kids in Tempe qualified for the Olympic trials in Iowa City on April 9-10. Kelsey Campbell, an ASU alumna, was the only one to secure a spot in the 2016 Rio Games.

Although an array of reasons have brought them to the area, they have stayed for the training.

The decision to continue training in Arizona was simple for former Sun Devil and Olympic trial qualifier Kevin Radford.

“I knew I could still grow in this atmosphere,” Radford said. “There was no point in me going somewhere else, I wasn’t finished growing yet, so I can stay here and continue doing what I want to do.”

SWIMMING

Giles Smith is in pursuit of an Olympic dream, training with the Phoenix Swim Club. He has been watching his idol, Michael Phelps, since he was 7 and began dreaming of achieving his own Olympic status at 13. In November, Smith outswam Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly in the Arena Pro Swim Series in Minneapolis.

“To be up and standing on a block and the guy next to me is Michael Phelps, it’s kind of like your idols become your rivals,” Smith said. “He’s the best swimmer in the world and it’s just an honor to be in the same heat as someone like that.”

Smith, a Baltimore native, swam for the University of Arizona. After his time at UA, he relocated to the Phoenix area to continue his Olympic training.

“The coaching, it’s a little bit more of a post-grad emphasis out here,” Smith said. “Somewhere I can focus and just trying to do my own thing. If I went home, I’d probably have to train with a team of high schoolers. Here, I can pretty much do what I need to do as a professional.”

Arcadia senior Matti Harrison has been training in Arizona since she started swimming competitively at age 6.

“I started swimming at 3 at my coach’s house,” Harrison said. “He’s (Mike Maczuga) actually my coach still.”

Harrison never anticipated the Olympics as a real possibility. During the summer of 2015, she made her first Olympic trial cut. The trials are in July.

“I never really expected to get there,” Harrison said. “It was always a dream, but I never really expected it to be me. Every kid hopes to be there and now that I am, I am just very grateful.”

Olympic gold medalist Amanda Borden-Cochran instructs gymnasts at her Chandler gym. (Photo by Nicole Vitale/Cronkite News)

Olympic gold medalist Amanda Borden-Cochran instructs gymnasts at her Chandler gym. (Photo by Nicole Vitale/Cronkite News)

GYMNASTICS

When thinking of gymnastics in Arizona, one name in particular comes to mind: Kerri Strug. The gold medal-winning Olympian from Tucson started the pursuit of an elite status at a young age. Strug began her career in Arizona but ended up where many gymnasts pursuing Olympic status go – in Texas training under Bela Karolyi.

Amanda Borden-Cochran is another member from the famed Magnificent Seven – the name given to the 1996 gold medal team – who is in the Arizona gymnastics scene.

She has owned Gold Medal Gymnastics in Tempe and Chandler since 2004. Her gym accommodates gymnasts at all levels, but it has yet to produce an Olympic athlete.

“I work with a lot of kids,” Borden-Cochran said. “I’ve had a lot of teammates who were amazing athletes and were maybe missing that one piece of the puzzle, which is that drive and to want it so bad that you’re willing to give up everything and do everything to accomplish it.”

Borden-Cochran has been consistent at developing talent at the collegiate level. She said her gymnasts have the resources to achieve whatever level they aspire to, as long as that dream belongs to them and not the parents or coaches.

“I feel like to be the best at anything whether it’s a sport, a job, being a mom or dad, you gotta love it. You can’t be great and be miserable doing it,” Borden-Cochran said. “I think that when something takes the kind of work it takes to get to the Olympics, there’s no other way to do it than to be passionate about what you’re doing.”

Former ASU women’s gymnastic coach John Spini is another accomplished mentor for Arizona gymnasts. Spini said the coach must match the talent and dedication of a gymnast pursuing the Olympics.

“I think you have to have the reputation and ability to coach an Olympic athlete,” Spini said. “Not everyone can coach at that level and there’s a handful of coaches in this country who can coach at that level.”

Desert Lights, a gym owned and operated by Spini and his wife Lisa, hosts Olympic hopeful Mykayla Skinner.

“Right now we’re in a fight to try to get MyKayla Skinner on the Olympic team, but when it comes down to it, it’s how is she going to do in the Olympic trials and can she stay healthy,” Spini said.

The Olympic trials for women’s gymnastics are in July.

“We have very good gymnasts in Arizona right now, the level of gymnastics in Arizona has greatly improved,” Spini said. “You have some very seasoned quality coaches out there and I think Arizona has the ability to produce more than just one or two.”