FLAGSTAFF, AZ - Swimmer Oussama "Ous" Mellouli, an Olympic gold medalist, gets a 6 a.m. wake-up call in his Flagstaff hotel room every day. After a light breakfast, he gathers with teammates at Wall Aquatic Center for 30 minutes of "dry lands" -- strength training done outside the pool. Then it's into the water for a solid two hours of swimming, done at an intensity that might kill the average human being.
But for Mellouli and his swimming partners on this trip, the Danish National Swim Team, this is only the first of three such workouts they will do on this day -- there will be another one at noon, and a "really hard workout" at 6 p.m. In between workouts, the athletes mostly just eat and try to rest.
"It's been kind of crazy because this is the first time I'm doing triples, which is three workouts a day," said Mellouli, who won the gold medal in the 1,500-meter freestyle for his native Tunisia at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Even for a world-class athlete like Mellouli, whose body is trained to go farther, faster and harder than most people could ever dream of going, the training schedule can be taxing.
"Some of the guys on the team went to check (the Grand Canyon) out yesterday, but I was just too tired, I wanted to stay in the hotel and relax."
Mellouli is one of hundreds of world-class athletes who come from all over the world to train in the rarified air of Flagstaff -- endurance athletes from runners to swimmers to cyclists. And with this being an Olympic year, there are more Olympians and Olympic hopefuls training here than ever before. They come initially for the air -- or lack thereof -- but they return because of the city and the experience they have here.
Flagstaff is an endurance athlete's Mecca. It has an ideal elevation of 7,000 feet, relatively easy access to an international airport, wonderful nearby diversions, including the Grand Canyon and Oak Creek Canyon, high-quality training facilities at NAU and a vibrant university atmosphere. It also has a tight-knit community of resident athletes and is relatively low-key compared to other high-altitude training cities such as Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and Boulder, Colo.
"I find (Flagstaff) to be, really, the best altitude training spot," Mellouli said. "Because the altitude is nice, 2,100 meters high, and the facility is great and you have a little town -- you really don't feel like you're at altitude when you look around because it's like a normal setting."
Added Mellouli: "That's the thing that can really be heavy on athletes, especially when they go on a three-week training camp at altitude and it's like being secluded. You can feel like you're really disconnected from the world, which you don't feel as much here. It's more like, you're in a town and people are around and it's kinda cool."
Sean Anthony, whose Flagstaff-based sports consulting company, HYPO2, provides logistical support to athletes, says that in the last year alone, 47 international teams have trained in Flagstaff, representing 18 different countries: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Switzerland and the United States.
Ever since distance-running legend Jim Ryun first brought attention to Flagstaff by training here for the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in 7,349-foot-high Mexico City, endurance athletes have been flocking to the city in greater numbers every year.
Recognizing the potential of their city, the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce began to look at ways to promote Flagstaff as a high-altitude training site in the mid-80s, and the result was the Center for High Altitude Training (CHAT), which opened its doors in 1994.
Operating out of the old Lumberjack stadium offices, CHAT provided athletes with a host of services, including biomechanical analysis, sports medicine care, massage therapy and ancillary training as well as access to facilities such as the Walkup Skydome, the Wall Aquatic Center and the stadium track.
In 2004, the U.S. Olympic committee designated CHAT as an official Olympic training center, which allowed it to provide funding for training to U.S. runners who met certain time standards, several of whom established residency in Flagstaff.
But despite its success and popularity, the center was not a profitable entity. After the Legislature forced budget cuts, NAU decided it could no longer afford to run CHAT. It cut off its funding in January 2009, and the USOC rescinded its official designation.
Anthony, who was employed by CHAT for 12 years, had left to form his own sports consulting company, HYPO2, six months before the center closed. As an assistant director in charge of the international program at CHAT, Anthony had built relationships with many international teams over the course of several years, so when NAU closed CHAT, Anthony started receiving phone calls.
"All the international teams that used (CHAT) started coming to me saying, `Are you still based