By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Aug. 12, 2013) — Flagstaff, Arizona, is known in international Olympic circles as a home away from home for many elite athletes, and as one of the top destinations of choice for high-altitude training.
Throughout the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century, Northern Arizona University’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex (later renamed the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University), served a growing number of Olympians and aspiring Olympians. In a November 2004 press release, it was summed up this way: “Including the Athens Games, over the past 10 years athletes from 39 countries have trained in Flagstaff, earning 191 Olympic and Paralympic medals.”
Fast forward to 2012 and these numbers emphasize Flagstaff’s role in preparations for the London Olympics: “Hypo2 Sport worked with hundreds upon hundreds of athletes in the lead-up to London, and we congratulate the 152 athletes from 22 countries who made it onto their country’s 2012 Olympic or Paralympic squad. And we celebrate your results: 23 Olympic medals with 74 top-8 performances, and 23 Paralympic Medals with 52 top-8 performances,” it was reported on Hypo2 Sport’s website.
Indeed, some major changes took place in Flagstaff over the past decade. Due to budget cuts during the economic downturn, the CHAT lost its funding and official U.S. Olympic Training Center designation in 2009, and closed down. That prompted Sean Anthony, who had worked as the center’s longtime assistant director (in many ways a key liaison to all those teams) for many years, to establish his own company, Hypo2 Sport, working with athletes in essentially the same capacity.
And so Hypo2 Sport was established to continue the services that HASTC and CHAT provided: giving world-class athletes opportunities to hold high-altitude training camps in Arizona.
Of course, coordinating schedules and requests from athletes, coaches and their teams from around the world presented unique challenges for HASTC and CHAT. And that continues to be true for Hypo2 Sport, where Anthony has continued to build upon the relationships he established while working out of the Northern Arizona University-based center.
Case in point: In November 2004, Anthony was a special guest, invited by the Japan Swimming Federation, to the Tokyo Swim Center Invitational (see related story below). At the time, he said, “It’s a great honor to receive such a generous invitation from the Japan Swimming Federation. This invitation is an indicator of just how effective we’ve been in building a strong relationship with the Japanese. I’m excited to have the opportunity to build on this relationship and to represent both HASTC and NAU in Tokyo.”
I first met Sean Anthony in the summer of 2000, when he helped set up interviews with Egyptian swimming siblings Rania and Mahmoud Elwani, among others, who were holding final high-altitude camps before the Sydney Games.
Over the years, it has been a pleasure to observe Anthony interacting with elite athletes, coaches and support staff — from Australia and Italy, Slovenia and Spain, Poland and Brazil, Japan and Canada, and the list goes on — and to hear about all aspects of these relationships. He has often provided a key tidbit or anecdote about an athlete or coach or team that enhanced a story or interview.
Anthony truly enjoys multicultural exchanges and being exposed to the day-to-day grind of sports in this context. For him, it is a true labor of love.
In a recent email interview, Anthony reflects on his work and the rewarding experiences he’s had along the way.
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You have one of the most unique jobs of anyone I’ve ever met. What are the most rewarding aspects of the work you do? And what are the most challenging aspects of it?
I’ve always been fascinated by other languages and cultures, and genuinely love meeting people from other countries and getting a glimpse of what the world looks like through their eyes. To be able to indulge in my fascination while working with the caliber of people who tend to wear Olympic gold medals around their neck and hold Premiership trophies aloft is really icing on the cake. I get a special kind of feeling when I open up my email client and see emails from people I work with from all over the world. It makes me feel connected in a way I just could not imagine getting from most other lines of work.
The most challenging aspect is that, unless you are born where a person is born and brought up within the culture he/she was brought up within, there is a bit of a gap that is almost incapable of being breached. The more years I do this, and the more I share experiences with people of different cultures, the more I understand how fundamentally different we are as well. Language certainly gets you closer, but it’s awfully hard to make it all the way.
Is there a motto or slogan you think best summarizes the role you’ve played in helping facilitate the home away from home for thousands of Olympians?
Hmmm … that’s a really difficult one. I think my role is all about relationships, and exuding both a confidence in being able to get the job done as well as a desire to do so that comes from a place of genuineness. I want my clients to feel they are being cared for in a real person-to-person way, not in a strictly business, transactional sense. I really do care, value the connection, and I hope that that shows. This can, of course, lead to difficulties when professional differences occur and you need to draw lines in the sand. It’s far easier to do with clients who have not also become friends.
I also think I try to create an environment where pretty much any request can be somehow accommodated. Where anything is possible. I know how to say “no problem” in about seven different languages so maybe “mondainai” is most apt for a slogan. I just go off and figure out how to get things done, even when I’m not sure where that will lead.
Can you think of a few examples of ways that your interaction with athletes, coaches and support staffs from around the world have enriched your life?
It has really been an all-encompassing and ongoing process of enrichment, and I would be hard-pressed to come up with specific examples. Travel, and the exposure to the new and different, really does broaden the mind and I’m fortunate in that, even though I do not actually travel all that much, the world comes to me.
It was somewhat of an epiphany when I was in a meeting about community and it dawned on me that my best friends are scattered all over the world – the international elite sport community is, in a strong sense, my community.
If you weren’t working in the field you are in, is there a “dream job” you would have pursued?
Travel writer. I don’t have to reach far for that one.
Besides the elevation and weather, what makes Flagstaff an ideal training ground, in your view, for Olympic athletes to train?
It’s a few things. There is that appropriate elevation for training at moderate altitude and generally amenable Southwest weather. But it’s also the accessibility to a major international airport, the capability to get down quickly in elevation (for higher intensity work, etc.), the proximity to extracurricular activities (Grand Canyon, etc.) and high-caliber training venues and support services. And then, of course, there is the matter of a certain organization who ties everything together to create an efficiently seamless altitude training camp. We have a “plug-and-play” type of setup that makes it pretty easy for athletes to do training camps. One phone call does it all, as the saying goes.
When you think of the massive list of athletes you can choose from to root for, is it as exhausting as it is fun to tune into the Olympics every four years to see those with Flagstaff ties compete against the world?
I honestly love seeing, and knowing, all the names. It’s a real source of pride. But when a Japanese swim client goes head-to-head with another client from Denmark, or when Carlton plays Collingwood at the MCG arena in Melbourne (in the largest spectator sporting event — Australian rules football — in the world, per capita, by the way), it does make for some confusion on the cheering front. I like it much better when the lines of allegiance can be clearer.
Who are a few key names for sports fans to keep an eye on for the 2014 Sochi Games that have put in time training in Flagstaff in recent years?
I wouldn’t have any names to give you as almost all our clients are in Summer Olympic sports. We don’t do much with winter sports just due to the inconsistency in snowfall in our altitude sites (mainly Flagstaff).
Language and cultural barriers can be a challenge to overcome for many jobs. That said, have you received unforgettable advice via a book or mentor to help remind you about the best way to bridge that gap?
Most of it has been on-the-job training, to be honest. But I do remember reading Michael Crichton’s novel, “Rising Sun,” very early on in my career with working with the Japanese, and was floored by some of his observations regarding the Japanese. It was very illuminating for me at the time.
What are a few of the most thoughtful and special and treasured gifts and souvenirs you’ve received from high-altitude training visitors during or after their stay in Flagstaff?
Norimasa Hirai, club coach for Tokyo Swimming Center and national team coach for the Japan Swimming Federation, once brought me a beautiful, traditional wall hanging (kakejiku) that his grandmother had made. I’d worked with Hirai-sensei for quite a few years already and I thought this was very intimate and thoughtful of him. But I’ve got polo shirts, jackets, coffee cups, pennants, balls, etc. from all over the world, representing some of the world’s best teams and athletes and they are all important to me in some way, all representative of something special that comes out of each and every training camp. I am the antithesis of a pack rat in all other aspects of my life, but it’s very difficult to throw any client gifts away when each is tied to some particular memory.
I also think I’m most touched by the sensitivity my sport clients show for things that are important in my life – like my son. A famous Collingwood player came rushing over to me at the end of last year’s camp to give me a jumper of his for my son (the two had met the year before and kicked a footy around together). And there was a Japanese coach who, upon learning that my son had gotten into yo-yos, showed up for training camp with some special yo-yos he’d brought from Tokyo. It takes a deep-rooted sort of thoughtfulness to do these things and it’s very touching.
What changes, big or small, do you see happening in the next decade for Flagstaff as a training mecca at high altitude?
I think people in Flagstaff are more aware than ever of the impact, both financial and otherwise, our international clients bring to the community and doors continue to open. But the biggest change will probably be the development of a new Olympic-size pool and, hopefully, additional indoor field space, along with even more centralization of the various training camp components we coordinate.