Culture
9:24 am
Thu February 6, 2014

Golden Opportunity: Why Winter Olympians Train in Florida

The Winter Olympics get underway today in Sochi, Russia, and more than a few Olympians trained in Florida. But how do Disney World and the beach help athletes prepare for ice and snow?

Strange as it sounds, there actually is a connection.

Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay are just two of the six current Olympians who trained at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex. Before they go for the gold in Sochi, the pair offered a preview of their free skate performance at their hometown rink.

Tom Lindemuth is general manager of the ice rink. He’s definitely not complaining about all the publicity.

"It’s incredible," Lindemuth said. "And the press, obviously, you get that you cannot buy. So it’s pretty exciting.”

But how did Central Florida become the place for elite athletes to train -- even for winter sports?

Bill Sutton directs the Sport and Entertainment Management Program at the University of South Florida. He points to two big draws.

"Disney and IMG have really been the initial kickstarters of all this," Sutton said.

IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton is a 500-acre city-within-a-city, where athletes from Tim Tebow to Andre Agassi have trained. And the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World plays host to everything from Atlanta Braves spring training to kids’ tournaments.

"If you’re familiar with Disney’s Wide World of Sports, there have been kids probably coming here since they were 6, 8 years old, and coming back year after year and training and playing against other elite athletes. So they’re exposed to the Orlando -- the Florida thing -- at an early age, and they know this is where competitive excellence lives," Sutton said. "If they’re going to compete against other people and compete using world-class facilities, that this is the place to come."

Kids are one thing. But why did the 1998 British men’s bobsled team train in Florida? Sutton says preparedness goes beyond the sport itself.

"You also have the opportunity to cross-train here. So in other words, instead of just doing your ice skating or preparing for your bobsled run, you can train doing different things to make yourself faster or to do different things for your conditioning or your strength training," Sutton said. "And if you look at what the weather is doing right now across the United States, it’s a mental thing as well as a physical thing. So think about being in a better frame of mind and having a more positive attitude where you’re in the sunshine and you’re outside."

Disney and IMG serve as anchors, attracting smaller training facilities -- some run by famous baseball players.

"It’s very interesting because there’s a number of facilities that have sprung up in the last 10 years, including things run by Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr. They’ve got some training facilities for elite athletes and Orlando and in Tampa, and that attracts people," Sutton said.

That’s the idea, says Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

"The coaches love the destination, because they can go to the beach when they want to, they can golf, they can go fishing all year long," Falcione said. "And that’s what helps drive these Olympic athletes to this destination."

How do coaches and athletes get exposed to Florida? Tournaments.

In 2016, Tampa will once again host the NCAA Division I men's ice hockey tournament. The following year, Sarasota will host the World Rowing Championships.

Once coaches and athletes come to Florida, the state sells itself. They can train outside year round. There’s no income tax. It’s a quick drive to the beach or the airport. Next thing you know, they’re training here and maybe even buying a house or starting a business.

"That is the domino effect that we seek," Falcione said.

And when a big-name chooses your town -- your training facility -- that creates a domino effect of its own.

Just ask Lindemuth, who manages the Ellenton sports complex where six Olympic figure skaters just finished training.

"The big increase you see is in the public skating, which is really the feeding ground for all your other programs. Because hockey, you cannot play that game unless you learn how to skate, so it kind of feeds every program. So it's just incredible," Lindemuth said.

So who knows? Those kids learning to skate today could be the next Zhang and Bartholomay -- jumping and turning on ice, then stepping outside into a beautiful day that's perfect for hitting the beach.