Olympic hopes rest on passing the test

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— If U.S. Nordic Combined coach Tom Steitz wants to know how his training program is effecting athlete all he has to do is look at the results.

Those results may not necessarily be recorded in the times from the last race, but the evaluations from the team's latest blood test.

"It's just another thing we have to do in a day," team member Jed Hinkley said of giving blood during a 7 a.m. appointment at Yampa Valley Medial Center. "It's surprising that we still have any blood left to give."

The athletes on the Nordic Combined team are subject to a rash of tests during the course of the year. Some of them are mandated by the Federation of International Skiing (FIS) to screen for illegal drugs. But testing for drugs has nothing to do with the reasons American athletes have been asked to give blood on a regular basis by their own coaches. For more than a year, Steitz has been using the tests to improve training and ultimately his own athletes performance.

Steitz said he likes to watch his own athletes blood to keep track of how his training program is impacting each of his own athletes.

Thanks to an arrangement with the Yampa Valley Medical Center the skiers on the U.S. Nordic Combined team can now to that at home.

"We used to have to go down to Colorado Springs several times a year," team member Todd Lodwick said. "It's still a pain, but this is a lot better than going there, and missing a full day of training."

The athletes are tested roughly once a month, but if one of the American coaches see an athletes performance start ot drop off, that athlete may face an additional tests.

Those results will tell coaches if they are pushing the skier too hard or if their is a health problem. It also lets them know which training technics may increse the athletes ability to carry oxygen in their blood stream.

Steitz said he likes to use the tests as a way to fine tune his training program to make sure the nordic combined athletes are reaching their maximum potential in training.

"There is a definite science to what we are doing," Steitz said. "We look at certain markers to see if we are training too much or too little. We look at the test results and make changes, so that our athletes are always training at the right level. Sometimes the blood tells us things that our athletes can't."

The major markers coaches and ski team doctors are looking for include hemoglobin and hematocrit which are molecules that determine how much oxygen the blood system is carrying. The tests also make it possible to look at the athlete's iron levels. A lack of iron might indicate that an athlete is training too much.

"Sports medician and sports science is about 25-30 percent of the total equation," said Randy Wilber, U.S. Ski Team exercise physiologist. "By testing blood we can get a good idea about the athletes general health, and how they are responding to their training program."

The tests will also help reveal how well the athletes are prepared to compete and altitude another important factor for the upcoming games

Wilber pointed to the 1968 summer Olympic Games in Mexico City when some very good track and field athletes failed to win medals because they were not prepared to compete at a high altitude.

Blood testing should give coaches and doctors a pretty good feel for how well the American skiers are prepared for the high altitude in Park City long before the Games roll around.

Wilber said that blood testing of athletes is common on the U.S. Ski Team, and with other countries around the world. Wilber said everyone is looking to gain the upper hand as the World moves toward the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

The nordic combined skiers themselves, however, seem less excited about the program as they arrived at the lab just before 7 a.m. last week to give blood.

Team member Bill Demong said he wasn't bothered about giving two vials of blood if it helps him reach his potential in training and pays off with top results in competition. But it was obvious he was looking forward to grabbing an Egg McMuffin after the needle came out of his arm.

"It's a pain for these guys," Steitz said. "They eat 24-hours a day and they can't do that before the test . Plus, the are not happy about it because they are always getting stuck with a needle."

Steitz said a guy like Lodwick, who is always on the World Cup Tour, may have to give blood as many as 30 times a year. The other athletes on the U.S. Team were slightly under that number.

The idea to test the athletes is nothing new. The FIS has been doing it for years in an effort to track down athletes who cheat. Steitz has been testing his skiers blood for the past several years in an effort to gage training technics.

The biggest change for his team came a few months ago when the Yampa Valley Medical Center joined forces to offer the Nordic Combined skiers the use of their labs for this type of testing and rehabilitation.

"It made an awful lot of sense to me," Yampa Valley Medical Center CEO Carl Gills said. "We can help them out and it's also a way we can get involved with the U.S. Ski Team here in Steamboat Springs sport when he met with Steitz and team physician Brian Bomberg a few months ago. But he jumped at the opportunity to help out the Steamboat based team especially with the Olympics looming in the future.

"We had what they needed to get the job done, and we just made the necessary steps to make sure it could happen."

In the past, Steitz tried having the blood drawn here in Steamboat and then sending it by special delivery to Colorado Springs.

This involved packaging the blood and packing it in dry ice so that it would still be in good shape when it arrived in Steamboat Springs.

"It just didn't make since, "Steitz said. "The cost of the information was just too expensive. Now that we can get it done in Steamboat it's a huge advantage and it should give us an edge that will pay off in better results."

Steitz said the blood tests are a small, but very important part, of what the team is trying to accomplish in the months leading up to the Olympic games.

"We want to go into the Olympics with our athletes blood at the optimal levels," Steitz said."

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