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Field of Dreams


NOT TOO MANY YEARS AGO—fewer than three, to be precise—the land was inhabited as it had been inhabited for untold centuries. Coyotes roamed, lizards darted, and snakes slithered. Humans who visited the area were drawn by the nearby water rather than the land.

This land, approximately 150 acres located on the shore of Lower Otay Lake, was 10 miles inland from San Diego Bay and seemingly decades away from civilization. It was both forbidding and foreboding.

That has changed.

The rolling terrain has been turned into fields of dreams, and buildings have been constructed for the humans who dream those dreams. Its inhabitants have come to call it, appropriately, the campus, though it is designed for the pursuit of athletic rather than academic excellence.

Welcome to the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, the first of its kind on U.S. soil. For hundreds of athletes in dozens of sports, the road to any Olympic medal will run through San Diego’s South Bay.

“This is the only Olympic training center built from the ground up to be exactly what it is,” says Benita Fitzgerald, the director since January. “And this is the only one in a warm-weather location.”

Fitzgerald knows a little about the Olympics. She won a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles in the 1984 Olympics. Her “road” went through the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she was housed in antiquated barracks donated by the Air Force. For a hurdler, that was a better place to be than Lake Placid, New York, a cold-weather training site utilizing facilities built for the 1980 Winter Olympics.

“What we have here,” she says, “is state-of-the-art. And we’re only finished with Phase I.”

Phase I is not a bad beginning. It got its start when the EastLake Development Company donated land valued at $20 million to the United States Olympic Committee. Other corporations, notably ARCO, kicked in sufficient funds to raise the $65 million needed to replace chaparral with aspiring champions.

This first phase, dedicated last June, contains dormitory housing for 150 men and women athletes, a 10-lane running track, four soccer fields, a field-hockey field, a cycling path, a boathouse, a science-and-medicine building, an archery range, a dining hall, four tennis courts, a jogging trail and administrative offices. In addition, each sport has its own support building for offices and equipment.

Moreover, the public has not been left out. The showcase edifice is the tourist-friendly Visitors Center at the north end, a half-moon structure surrounding a courtyard overlooking the playing fields. Its shop features Olympic-theme souvenirs, and daily tours are conducted down the mile-long Olympic walk, which winds its way to a pavilion called the Orange Grove at the south end.

Were Steven Segaloff not so occupied with his Olympic quest as a rowing coxswain, he might well be the perfect person to guide the public on those tours. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he has been at the Olympic Training Center site since before the fields were carved and the buildings erected.

“The rowers got here three years ago,” Segaloff recalls, “when all of this was nothing but a pile of dirt. We rowed out of a shipping carton and had a couple of PortaJohns installed. It was worth it, though, to sort of stake our claim. Now we’re the envy of all the rowers in the country.”

The “facility” of most interest to the rowers, to be sure, was already in place. Lower Otay Lake needed no work. Its presence, back then, was all that attracted human visitors ... fishermen and then rowers. Of course, the new boathouse has made life much more comfortable to rowers, canoers and kayakers, three groups permanently housed at the center. The other “resident” sports are field hockey, archery and soccer.

Peter Newton, a kayaker from Hawaii through Seattle, is finishing lunch late one morning in the dining room when he is asked about life at the OTC.

“Are we pampered?” he muses. “I guess you could say that. We get free housing and free food, and all of the facilities are top-notch, the best in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

THE PERMANENT RESIDENTS are able to develop a unique camaraderie beyond their own sports. Kayakers get to know archers, field-hockey players get to know soccer players, and so on. They are not isolated within their own enclaves. Instead, to sustain the campus parallel, they are more like coed students at a given university with diverse majors. Both men’s and women’s teams participate in archery, canoe and kayak. And while rowing, soccer, and field hockey are limited to men’s teams, women’s teams in rowing and soccer will occasionally use the facility.

“If anything,” Newton says, “this is almost a miniature version of what an Olympic Village will be like. The difference is that we’re all hoping to represent the U.S.”

Fitzgerald, indeed, wants the OTC staff to familiarize itself with all of the resident sports.

“From my high school and college days I know about sprints, hurdling and jumping,” she says, “but I know nothing about the javelin or hammer and even less about archery or field hockey. I’m going to take the staff through clinics so they can appreciate what our athletes are trying to achieve.”

Some of the best facilities, in fact, are for track and field, yet there are no resident sports in those disciplines. Athletes who run and throw usually stay with their university or club teams until the Olympics, in part because those are individual rather than team endeavors. Yet the running tracks and throwing circles, by Fitzgerald’s experienced account, are the best she has seen.

“We hope to attract resident programs in track and field,” explains Collette Duncan, the associate director. “Benita works on it on almost a daily basis. Individuals who are recognized by track and field’s national governing body as ‘elite’ athletes can stay here and use the facilities for free. We have a couple of people here right now, but you don’t get entire teams in track and field.”

In truth, these facilities can and will get better than they are, whenever Phase II might be implemented.

“That’s undefined,” Fitzgerald says, “because of funding. When we can get to the training center, it will include a gymnasium, pool complex, baseball field, softball field and, of course, more dormitories. The more support we get from the community and donors, the better the facilities will be.”

The community—at least in the Chula Vista and Sweetwater school districts—is already involved on a participatory level. Fitzgerald says more than 4,500 students have visited the OTC since October for tours and clinics under a program called “Exercise the Dream.” They are not overnight visitors, of course, but they do get an opportunity to rub shoulders with the resident athletes and maybe kindle a dream or two of their own.

One expected overnight “visitor” was the Olympic torch. It was scheduled to make its way through the Olympic Training Center when it came through San Diego County, traveling up the center’s Olympic Path April 28 and spending the night in the imposing cauldron in front of the Visitors Center. The next leg of its journey to Atlanta was set for the morning of April 29, when rowers were to carry it across Lower Otay Lake.

What better way to underscore the reality that the road to any Olympics, now and in the future, does indeed pass through the South Bay?
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