Elite athletes flock to state-of-the-art Arizona facility where training regimens are tailor-made for them
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Curt Schilling wants to pitch two more seasons, then leave baseball at the top of his game. The 38-year-old Red Sox ace contemplates his retirement without any hesitation. No sense of regret. He feels lucky to even consider pitching until age 41. Without the help of Athletes' Performance, Schilling believes he would not be pitching at all now.
When asked what brought him to the training facility on the campus of Arizona State University three years ago, Schilling said, ''Age." He wanted career longevity comparable to that of Roger Clemens (age 43) and former teammate Randy Johnson (age 42), and figured a better offseason routine was necessary. The physical therapists and coaches at Athletes' Performance exceeded his expectations, not only lengthening his career, but, after he underwent major ankle surgery, perhaps saving it.
''I don't question for a second that had I not been with them this winter, I wouldn't be back this year," said Schilling. ''I wouldn't be nearly where I am now.
''I want to play two more years and walk away. And I want to do that at a level that I've done it the last 10 or 15 years. I don't think I'll be able to do that without their input and their help.
''If I'm not getting power from my core in a part of my delivery, they have a set of exercises to address that. I've seen dramatic improvement in range of motion and flexibility since I've been there, which for what I do for a living is at the center of success and failure."
Schilling joins an impressive list of Red Sox, All-Stars, and world-class athletes who embrace the AP philosophy, from Kevin Youkilis to Jason Varitek, to the Cubs' Nomar Garciaparra, to the Blackhawks' Nikolai Khabibulin, to the Sabres' Chris Drury, to the Packers' Brett Favre, to the Magic's Steve Francis, to tennis player Jennifer Capriati, to the German men's national soccer team.
Far from high-energy fitness gurus long on promises and gimmickry, AP founder and president Mark Verstegen and his 25-person staff of trainers and nutritionists shy away from the hard sell. That, coupled with an ever-evolving approach, keeps AP something of a mystery. But spend a few days there, or even just a few hours, and a unique training environment is revealed.
Verstegen and his staff educate clients in a facility designed to integrate the skills of exercise physiologists, nutritionists, physical and massage therapists, and biomechanical and metabolic specialists. Acknowledging current concerns about steroids in sports, Verstegen refers to training at AP as ''an ethical alternative," and he requires athletes to sign a statement promising not to use banned or illegal substances. Working out AP-style is not about how much an athlete bench presses, but how, why, and when.
After an exhaustive evaluation process, athletes follow workouts that include both traditional drills and more innovative exercises involving physioballs and Pilates-like stretches. The coach-to-athlete ratio (often 1-to-1) exceeds any that would be found in crowded NFL, MLB, NHL, or NBA weight rooms. If an athlete follows a training plan designed by AP with attention to form, core strength, and diet, Verstegen guarantees improved performances.
''We want to make sure we go through all the different variables that affect an athlete's performance," said Verstegen. ''That includes getting into their lifestyles, their recovery patterns, their nutritional patterns, the entire package."
AP strives for a cooperative relationship with all of its athletes and their teams, providing additional support, not alternatives, to team training programs. In that respect, the Red Sox serve as a model, with physical therapists, trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches regularly consulting. General manager Theo Epstein views what AP does for Schilling in rehabilitation, Varitek in maintenance, and Youkilis in development as extremely valuable. AP offers a blueprint for what the Red Sox would like to establish at their Fort Myers, Fla., training facility.
''It's a good formula," said Epstein. ''If [players] go there, they are committed to putting in the work and they're in the best environment to get the most out of that work. For our young guys, it's great. It sets the right tone. The lessons they learn early tend to stay with them.
''More and more players are committed to spending the winter in Fort Myers. Eventually, we will have our own in-house holistic program. But for now, we trust that AP is a good complement."
Everything by design Only the parking lot hints at the work being done inside the modern AP facility, constructed of glass, brick, and steel beams. A dozen reserved spaces in front of the main entrance display the names of elite athletes on site. Garciaparra. Khabibulin. Gugliotta.
Starting at the reception desk with a view of the pool area, the loft-like 30,000-square-foot building feels surprisingly airy and uncluttered, unlike typical gyms. The walls are painted in bright yellows and oranges. On cooler days, the back of the facility opens to the outdoors, courtesy of retractable glass panels.
Verstegen helped design the facility with ease of movement and openness in mind. The main weight room contains both workout equipment and training tables for therapy. In addition to the standard racked weights, the AP staff designed special apparatus to help athletes stretch and strengthen as they sit, kneel, and lunge while pulling weighted handles. An 80-yard turf football field, a four-lane 60-meter track, pitching mounds, an underwater treadmill, and an ice-cold mini-pool can be found outside.
The winter months find AP filled with baseball players and college football players preparing for the NFL Combine. Hockey players, basketball players, and football players visit during the summer. Year-round, tennis players, soccer players, and golfers stop by, while athletes from various sports who are rehabilitating injuries and local high school and college stars make use of the facility. Athletes are charged according to their ability to pay, with weekly prices ranging from $600 for an amateur athlete to $1,500 for all the on-site services a professsional like Schilling requires. But Verstegen insists AP does not train athletes to make money.
''We don't want to be a sports business," said Verstegen. ''We want to be a world-class business in the world of sports. And that takes another component. If you want to be successful, you have to have the right types of athletes and the right people to handle that relationship part with agents and with teams."
In his home away from home, Verstegen offers guests protein-rich supplemental drinks the way most hosts offer coffee. A former football player at Washington State, he lives by the AP training philosophy. He never tires of drawing car analogies, likening what he does to improving the suspension and engine on a Mercedes, and the integration between athlete and AP staff to that of a racer and pit crew.
Verstegen developed his approach through study and coaching at his alma mater, then created the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, Fla. He also served as assistant director of player development at Georgia Tech, where he met devoted followers Garciaparra and Varitek. In 1999, he established the facility in Arizona and in 2003 opened a second one at the
''We want to prove there is a way to do this ethically, not just for professional athletes, but for all athletes," said Verstegen. ''If you want to work hard, great. Let us help you work smart."
Disciplined approach In mid-July, as temperatures climb toward 115 degrees, almost a dozen NFL players arrive at 8 a.m. for a two-hour workout. Among those braving the heat are the Lions' Kyle Koiser, the Bengals' Levi Jones, and the Packers' Joey Thomas and R-Kal Truluck.
They head to the covered training area for a series of lunges, stretches, and jumping exercises, and they finish by balancing on boxes. The one constant is coaches shouting about the importance of proper form. ''Be real deliberate in your movements," says Luke Richesson. Workouts are designed to trigger specific muscle groups. Improper form defeats the purpose.
The players move to the football field, and half of them don harnesses. They take turns pulling each other 30 yards, then switch to weighted sleds for more sprints and lunges before moving inside for more traditional weightlifting.
''They stress the fact that if your body's not right, you're not going to be able to perform at your optimum," said Thomas, who arrived last summer with an injured hamstring and returned twice this offseason. ''I keep coming back because I always get bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive every time.
''I'm here and my body feels good. The best feeling you can have going into camp is having your body feel good. It gives you that extra edge and that extra confidence and you're like, 'Yeah, this is my year.' "
When it was not Khabibulin's year -- he held out for all of the 1999-2000 season and all but two games of the next season -- the goalie turned to AP, at the recommendation of his agent, to stay fit.
''I've done a lot of stuff I wasn't even aware of before, but you don't do anything you don't need to do," said Khabibulin. ''Everything changed for me. Even the stuff I used to do, I do at a different tempo and create more power."
To keep bodies feeling good, AP devotes half its space to the training area and half to recovery. On the recovery side of the building, there are private massage rooms, saunas, steam rooms, locker rooms, a theater for coaching seminars and movies, a quiet room for uninterrupted rest between morning and afternoon sessions and a cafe inside an athletes lounge complete with Ping-Pong table.
The cafe is one of the unique parts of AP, with chef Debbie Martell preparing meals and supplemental drinks for athletes based on the needs assessed by staff nutritionist Amanda Carlson. Chicken pesto pizza. Green chile burritos. The chef also packages dinners for athletes to take home.
The cafe reinforces the AP belief that achieving athletic excellence is about a disciplined lifestyle more than anything else.
Embracing philosophy Schilling not only follows the lifestyle advocated by AP as best he can (minus some of the nutritional suggestions), he brings AP into his life. During the All-Star break, Schilling took his family to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and brought along AP performance specialist Craig Friedman, who worked with the pitcher pre- and post-ankle surgery. The two trained twice a day during the break. AP physical therapist Sue Falsone was in the operating room when Schilling underwent surgery and attended his first rehabilitation assignment. Both Friedman and Falsone have traveled from Tempe a couple times this season to help Schilling.
''I can't expect the trainer on this team to spend an hour and a half with me during prime time because he's got 25 guys to get ready," said Schilling. ''And what I need to do is not conventional stuff, so we end up having them come out."
Friedman and Falsone know Schilling's strengths and deficiencies as well as anyone. They started working with him before he came to Boston.
''We did a lot of stability and flexibility work the last couple years, especially with his hips," said Friedman. ''That unlocked a lot of things with his pitching mechanics. When we loosened his hips, he started throwing the ball not just from his arm, but from his hips and his trunk, taking the stress away from the shoulder. Within a single game, you don't have stress through the arm so you don't fatigue as quickly. Through the course of the season, the potential for injury decreases."
The needs are different for a young infielder. After Youkilis finished his first professional season in Double A, the Red Sox sent him to AP. He is the type of player director of player development Ben Cherington believes benefits most from AP. The team saw that Youkilis had the skills to be a major leaguer, but also thought he could improve his first-step quickness and range.
When Youkilis returned from Arizona, the Red Sox noticed a marked difference. He was leaner and quicker. Since then, Youkilis has maintained the discipline he learned at AP and remained relatively injury-free.
''From an exercise standpoint or a modality standpoint, I don't think AP does anything that individual teams, certainly the Red Sox, aren't doing," said Cherington. ''What they do a great job with is taking the athlete, educating him, and immersing him in this environment where he no longer thinks of conditioning and proper nutrition as an option. It's, rather, a necessity to get better."
Varitek started working with Verstegen at Georgia Tech in 1992, and the Red Sox captain credits AP with keeping him strong yet flexible. Each offseason, Verstegen adjusts Varitek's workout regimen to fit new needs. As a result, Varitek estimates he has more speed, range, and flexibility than when he entered the major leagues.
''I've always had pure strength, but to add the other components to it has given me more durability," said Varitek, who also hopes he has added five years to his career.
Schilling only wishes he started working with AP sooner.
''If I was a general manager, every young player on my roster would spend six weeks before spring training going down there," said Schilling. ''If for nothing else the knowledge going forward. People need to realize if you're not doing this now, you're behind the curve. If you're not involved with AP or something AP-like, you're losing the race."