Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Shannon Rowbury as an alumna of the University of California at Berkeley. She graduated from Duke University. This version has been corrected.
In the weeks since his professional middle-distance running group was kicked off the track at the University of Texas, Olympian Leonel Manzano has run when and where he can. Sometimes he and his training partners work out on neighborhood tracks, often when regular folk are getting in their daily jogs. Unlike the state-of-the-art oval at the Austin campus, the tracks are generally hard, sometimes weather-beaten and rarely Olympic size.
On some days, when no track can be found, there is no practice at all.
The group of Olympians and Olympic hopefuls, coached by Ryan Ponsonby and George Mason University Hall of FamerJohn Cook, worked out every morning at the university until about six weeks ago. That’s when someone tipped off university officials that the school was technically violating state law, which prohibits outside coaches from providing paid services on public property.
The training group’s plight is part of an increasingly difficult problem in Olympic sports, as growing numbers of athletes seek to extend their careers well beyond college. Even as they achieve unprecedented financial security through apparel sponsorships, prize money and U.S. Olympic funds allocated for post-grads, the pros often struggle to find suitable places to train.
Beyond the track ovals on big-time college campuses — whose access is usually restricted and can be taken away at any time — there are few high-caliber venues where the sport’s elite can hone their skills. There is virtually no professional infrastructure in most Olympic sports.
“These are elite athletes,” Ponsonby said. “Everybody’s trying to . . . race for a medal in the world championships [in Daegu, South Korea, this summer] and in the Olympics in 2012. We certainly have our work cut out for us without having to deal with facility usage.”
USA Track and Field’s “goal is to win 30 medals in 2012; meanwhile, we’re trying to get on a track.”
The dearth of Olympic-owned training facilities has for years pushed athletes in many Olympic sports onto college campuses or other non-Olympic property, where they work out individual arrangements. The U.S. Olympic Committee and various sport national governing bodies have long tried to maintain good relationships with the NCAA, recognizing its crucial importance in building and developing U.S. Olympians. Yet officials say they know the situation is not ideal.
Athletes who train on college campuses must work around NCAA rules, collegiate team schedules, liability concerns and many other issues, including occasional conflicts with on-site coaches and officials.
Four-time world champion hurdler Allen Johnson, a Lake Braddock High School graduate who won an Olympic gold medal in 1996, trained at the University of South Carolina from 1997 through the spring of 2007, when he and fellow runners including Lashinda Demus, Tiffany Ross-Williams, Otis Harris and Demetrius Washington were abruptly barred. They were told, Johnson said, their presence was interfering with the collegiate program.
“If they decide they don’t want you out there, you won’t be out there,” Johnson said. “A lot of it has to do with money and jealousy — who’s going to get credit for what . . . The official reason [given] a lot of times is [this is] an NCAA violation. It’s my belief that it’s often because of a personality conflict.
“The USATF and USOC, we need to get our own stuff,” he added. “That’s the bottom line. You don’t see any NFL team worrying about where they are going to practice.”
In early March, Manzano and his trackmates learned they could no longer train with Ponsonby and Cook on the Texas campus. The group included former Texas runners Kyle Miller and Jacob Hernandez, a two-time NCAA champion in the 800; Treniere Clement Moser, a three-time U.S. 1,500-meter champion and Georgetown graduate; Shannon Rowbury, an Olympian and two-time U.S. 1,500-meter champion; prominent miler David Torrence; Kenya’s Jackson Kivuva and Mexican national record-holder Pablos Solares Legorreta.
University of Texas men’s athletic director DeLoss Dodds said recently the university has a long tradition of welcoming its professional alumni in many sports to use its facilities, as long as they don’t train at the same time as undergrads — which would be an NCAA violation — or bring paid coaches with them.
“We love having our kids back,” Dodds said. “They’re good mentors, good role models.”
Manzano, 26, said he can’t imagine trying to make the 2012 Olympic team without a professional coach. He and his teammates in Austin are sponsored by Nike; Ponsonby and Cook are Nike coaches. Manzano said he is uncomfortable with the idea of going back to Texas to train with the collegiate team, another option if he were to secure a job as a volunteer assistant coach.
“If I’m going back to college [training] that would be kind of hurting myself instead of helping myself,” he said. “And it would be hard training without a coach. A coach is there to oversee things, make sure things are going well, that you’re not overdoing it or underdoing it, or not pushing yourself too hard.”
Ponsonby said he’s grateful to the parks and schools that have opened their doors to his displaced team, but their tracks are in many cases less than state of the art. Many tracks are wrapped around football fields, so their dimensions are 100 meters at each turn with 100 meter straightaways, rather than the proper 120-80. The surfaces also are generally less expensive and harder, which can lead to injuries, he said.
USA Track and Field has one national residency training site: the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., which offers qualifying athletes free room and board, coaching and use of its facilities. Track and field athletes have the rights to 18 spots there, according to Kelly Skinner, the USOC’s team leader of sports performance, with an additional 12 welcome if they provide their own off-campus housing. The main USOC training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., does not have a track oval.
“It’s a great facility, but it doesn’t suit everyone,” Johnson said. “Chula Vista can’t train every potential track and field athlete in this country.”
The USATF has tried to help its post-graduate athletes with increased, targeted funding; it has allocated $200,000 this year, split among five post-collegiate training groups in various parts of the country, with plans to fund more, USATF President Stephanie Hightower said in an e-mail.
“They are getting financial support,” Hightower said during a phone interview. “That’s not the issue. The real issue becomes having tracks, places to train . . . For the most part, athletes do work it out.”
Privately owned facilities in Clermont (a training center owned by a hospital) and Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (playing fields on the Walt Disney World complex), have attracted three separate groups of track and field athletes, including star sprinter Tyson Gay and hurdler David Oliver, a Howard graduate.
Still, colleges remain the primary pipeline and training home for track post-grads, said USATF Director of Coaching Terry Crawford. Student-athletes at 26 NCAA schools won medals at the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008 or the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010, according to the USOC, and many of them remained at their schools after they graduated.
Those arrangements generally become less tenable as athletes move on after their collegiate days. Rowbury splits her time between Austin and the Bay Area, where she works out at the University of California at Berkeley and a high school track in San Francisco.
“We’re sort of homeless,” she said. “We don’t have any one place.”