Flagstaff, AZ – The Collingwood Magpies sprint around the field inside the Skydome on NAU's campus, barking out instructions to one another. Australian Rules football, or footie, is sort of a cross between soccer, football and rugby. The players tackle hard without any helmets or pads they run fast, and they run really far as much as twelve miles in a single game.
Star player Scott Pendlebury says training at seven thousand feet has really paid off.
"It's been building over a few years, last year we seemed to be able to maintain our fitness in the latter part of the season which was really important." (13 sec)
Collingwood has trained in Flagstaff five of the past six years. And the other year the team practiced at altitude in South Africa. Head Coach Mick Malthouse says it may be coincidence
"But the six years we've done it we've been in the finals, so we'll take it that it's the altitude."
The basic science behind high altitude training is pretty simple. Because the air at higher elevations is thinner, every breath delivers less oxygen to the muscles. So the body compensates by producing more red blood cells.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the altitude itself is a quicker way of getting the fitness levels up "
Which means the team can spend a lot more time on the technical aspects of the game like ball work and tactics.
Collingwood came to Flagstaff with the help of Sean Anthony, who worked for the High Altitude Training Center at NAU for 12 years. When it closed, he launched Hypo 2 Sport Management to help handle the logistics for teams like Collingwood who still wanted to train in Flagstaff. Anthony says there was a lull right after the center closed, but now
"Our calendar for January through June next year is the craziest January through June calendar I've ever seen."
Over the next few months swimmers from Japan, Germany, Italy and Norway will train in Flagstaff. For those national teams, who come with big support staffs, not much has changed since NAU's high altitude center closed. But Mike Smith, who works for Anthony, says that's not the case for elite long distance runners. Many of them come to Flagstaff on their own.
"You've got some of the fastest guys in the world, wandering around this town, wondering which way is north, not knowing where to go or the first place to be."
Last year Smith bumped into a Danish steeplechaser and his coach at the Skydome. They didn't know where to run, where to lift weights, where to go if there was an emergency.
"When I left them, and went home and googled the name, I realized this guy was ranked seventh in the world in his event. Man, if we were still in business, something like that would never happen, and because he would have a positive experience here, he would come back, and when he'd win races all over Europe, he would say the words Flagstaff, Arizona, and for a little mountain town, that's a lot."
Smith says Flagstaff competes with other high altitude cities, places welcoming world-class athletes with open arms. That's something that Flagstaff mayor Sara Pressler recognizes. During the Collingwood Magpies' recent training camp, she issued a proclamation declaring the last two weeks of November the Collingwood Football Club Days.
But not before she made them sing the team song in the city council chambers.