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Let the games begin!

Sport physiologist prepares athletes for Beijing Olympics

By Kate Hartsel

Ming Tombs Reservoir
Ming Tombs Reservoir, site of the triathlon competition of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

While millions of Americans admire the accomplishments of elite Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps and Apolo Anton Ohno, few understand what goes on behind the scenes to help those athletes succeed at such a high level of competition.

One 1979 UW-Eau Claire graduate does understand because he’s spent much of his career helping American athletes — including Phelps and Ohno — prepare to compete on the Olympic stage.

Randy Wilber, a former assistant cross-country and track coach who earned his master’s degree in history at UW-Eau Claire, is a senior sport physiologist at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"My day-to-day work is very focused on consulting with coaches and athletes in preparation for performing optimally at the Olympic Games," Wilber said. "One Olympics is barely over before we start preparing for the next one. In general, my job is to determine how some environmental factors, such as heat, humidity, air pollution and jet lag, can have a negative effect on athletic performance, whereas other environmental factors, such as altitude, can have a positive effect. More specifically, I conduct research and design practical strategies for our athletes to use, which allow them to train and compete optimally when confronted with challenging environmental conditions."

Since March 2006, Wilber has traveled to China eight times in his efforts to determine how environmental issues might affect Team USA athletes competing in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, which will be held Aug. 8-24 in Beijing. He made his first trip to China just two weeks after the closing ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy.

"We expect to face the negative factors of high heat, humidity and air pollution in Beijing," Wilber said of the challenges he identified during his multiple visits to China.

To prepare for the summer games, Wilber also has tested the water temperature and purity at the Shunyi Canoeing and Rowing Complex, where the 10-kilometer open-water swim — a new Olympic event — will take place.

"Swimmers will be in the water more than two hours," Wilber said. "When I tested the water in August 2007, the temperature was about 85 degrees. You can imagine how challenging that will be for the swimmers." (For an event of that duration, a more ideal water temperature would be 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Wilber is considered a worldwide expert on environmental performance issues, Doug Ingram, managing director of performance services for the U.S. Olympic Committee, stated in a letter to UW-Eau Claire’s Alumni Association.

"His work in endurance, altitude and hypoxic training has benefited our American athletes tremendously, a notable example being the two medals our marathon athletes won in the Athens 2004 Olympics after a long drought from the podium," Ingram wrote. "The strategies that Randy devised assisted the coaches and athletes in achieving this historic accomplishment."

The athletes often recognize Wilber’s expertise and appreciate his contributions to their Olympic accomplishments, Ingram says.

"I just wanted to thank you so much for such a fantastic Olympic experience," Deena Kastor, bronze medalist in the women’s marathon in the Athens 2004 Olympics, said in a letter to Wilber. "I was convinced even before the race that I was the most prepared for this Olympic marathon than any other race in my 20 years of racing. Your expert advice, knowledge and research helped our team accomplish our goal. Thank you for being so passionate about your job and for helping me earn a spot on the awards podium."

Wilber typically works with endurance athletes. For the 2008 Sum-mer Olympic Games, he is working with track distance runners, cyclists, swimmers and triathletes. When preparing for the Winter Olympics, he focuses more on short track and long track speed skaters and cross-country skiers.

During his career, Wilber has worked with U.S. Olympic team athletes from a variety of sports, including Phelps, 2004 Olympic gold medalist in swimming and two-time Olympian; Alison Dunlap, 2001 world champion in cross-country mountain bike racing and two-time Olympian; Ohno, 2002 and 2006 Olympic gold medalist in short track speed skating and two-time Olympian; and Johnny Spillane, 2003 world champion in Nordic combined skiing and two-time Olympian.

"I’m very fortunate to get to work with the country’s best athletes," Wilber said. "Olympic athletes are different from many other elite athletes, different in a good sense. Olympic athletes aren’t arrogant or condescending as some of the millionaire professional athletes are. They are good, sincere, down-to-earth people who just happen to have extraordinary athletic abilities."

As an employee of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Wilber travels extensively. He strives to build positive relationships with those he connects with during his travels throughout the world.

"Typically, I am out of the country at least once or twice a month, interspersed with domestic travel," Wilber said. "Because of the extensive international travel, I really get to be an ambassador for the United States. I attempt to project a good image of the United States via the one-on-one contacts I make with people in other countries. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously."

He also takes seriously efforts to ensure that athletes do not use illegal drugs to gain an edge, noting that it’s unfortunate a few athletes have sullied the image of Olympic contenders by resorting to illegal performance-enhancing drug use.

"The objective throughout all Olympic sport is to be drug free," Wilber said. "The U.S. Olympic Committee funds research for the purpose of developing tests to detect illegal drugs. The goal is to ensure that detection technology stays ahead of the cheaters. We’ve made a lot of progress in that area in the last five years."

While Wilber has spent 15 years working for the U.S. Olympic Committee, he didn’t take a direct route to his current position in sports physiology. A native of Franklin, Pa., a small, blue-collar steel town, Wilber attended Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he competed as a cross-country and track runner and earned a history degree in 1976. Wilber then taught high school history and coached cross-country and track in Titusville, Fla.

While reading Runner’s World magazine, Wilber noticed a small advertisement for an internship position as an assistant cross- country and track coach at UW-Eau Claire. Though he’d never been to Wisconsin or heard of UW-Eau Claire, he was intrigued enough to apply. He was hired and enrolled in a history master’s program.

"My cross-country team in Titusville was ranked No. 1 in the state when this opportunity at UW-Eau Claire arose," Wilber said. "Leaving Titusville at that point was a gut-wrenching decision, but something told me it was the right decision to come to Eau Claire."

Wilber’s decision proved to be good for UW-Eau Claire as well, said Bill Meiser, a professor emeritus who was the track and field coach when he hired Wilber.

"At that time I knew we had the runners in the program to take us to the next level of competition, but we needed the right person to tip things in the right direction," Meiser said. "We needed someone who was an experienced runner, a competitor who knew how to relate to the psyche of a distance runner. Randy was all of that."

Wilber worked closely with Meiser and cross-country coach Keith Daniels.

"Bill and Keith were very influential, advancing my knowledge and skill in sports physiology and biomechanics," Wilber said. "More important, they taught me how to work with people in challenging situations ... coaches, athletes and administrators. Both sets of skills are critical in my current work with U.S. Olympic athletes and coaches."

After completing his coaching internship and earning his master’s degree, Wilber returned to Florida, where he taught for several more years. He said he enjoyed teaching but felt he needed a new challenge. He thought law school might be a logical next step, but something kept pulling him toward exercise physiology.

"I consulted with four or five key people in my life, including Bill and his wife, Mary," Wilber said. "They said I would do fine as a lawyer, but I was really an athletic person, a coach, and they said I was good at it. They said that’s the direction I should go."

Taking their advice, Wilber enrolled at Florida State University. He earned his master’s degree there in 1990 and a Ph.D. in 1994 in exercise physiology.

While finishing his doctoral degree, Wilber read another advertisement, this time for a research fellowship at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. He applied, was hired and soon was certain he’d found his next career path. After completing the fellowship, he was offered a permanent position at the training center, where he has been ever since.

Looking back over the years, Wilber said everything pointed him in the direction he eventually took.

"I was always in the right place at the right time for everything to work out."

Kate Hartsel is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

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Composing the Olympic soundtrack

UW-Eau Claire has another connection to the Olympic Games — a musical one.

Micky Wrobleski, who attended UW-Eau Claire from 1992-97, is the principal tuba player with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, which has already recorded the more than 200 national anthems for the Olympic medal ceremonies. He also has written some incidental music for the various ceremonies, but what will be used is top secret, Wrobleski said.

Wrobleski credits Jerry Young, UW-Eau Claire professor of music, with helping him develop as a musician and attain his current position.

"Dr. Young taught me a great deal about playing the tuba," Wrobleski said. "Doc is the epitome of what every teacher should strive to be. He is always providing his students with the highest possible standards, both personal and professional, to follow."

As a member of the Beijing Symphony, Wrobleski plays more than 100 concerts a year. He also does a great deal of studio recording and participates in an 18-person brass ensemble made up of the best brass musicians from the Beijing Symphony, the China National Symphony, the Central Movie Orchestra and the China Philharmonic.


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