Hockey was the dream job, but swimming became his niche

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 21, 2004.

Lafontaine is living an adventure

By Ed Odeven
Like all young lads growing up in Quebec, Canada, Pierre Lafontaine dreamt of being a professional hockey player for the Montreal Canadiens. And it didn’t take him very long to figure this out.

“I could skate by the time I was 2 years old,” Lafontaine was saying Thursday during a lunchtime interview. “You’d skate with a hockey stick in your hands so you could stay up. That’s just what you do.

“…We’d be on the lake from eight in the morning ’til eight at night playing hockey.”

Little did he know it at the time, while skating on the frozen water of the Montreal suburb Pointe-Claire, but Lafontaine found his niche in an unexpected place: on an unfrozen surface of water, a swimming pool.

“My mother was a principal at a school for disabled kids and she needed somebody to teach swimming lessons to the kids,” Lafontaine recalls. “So I started teaching the disabled kids, and then the Johnson brothers (Tom and Dave), who are now coaching the Canadian team, asked me to coach the 8-and-unders (at the Pointe-Claire Swimming Club) and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll do that while I go to the university.’ And I’m in Australia now.

“I got my start with the 8-and-unders,” the 47-year-old says proudly.

Little by little, Lafontaine worked his way up the coaching ranks. He coached the 9- and 10-year-olds, then the 11- and 12-year-olds at Pointe-Claire while learning the ins and outs of the craft.

The rest is history. Nowadays, Lafontaine is a senior assistant coach at the Australian Institute of Sport and an assistant coach for the Australian Olympic team, which began a three-week training camp at Northern Arizona’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex last Saturday. (Heralded stars like Olympians Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Michael Klim and Petria Thomas are taking part in that camp. The other half of the Olympic team is competing in the Mare Nostrum 2004, four big meets in three weeks in Europe.)

After several years of coaching in his hometown, Lafontaine moved on to the University of Calgary, where he worked from 1984 to 1988 with the university’s club team and intercollegiate squad. After that, he took a post at the newly formed Phoenix Swim Club in 1988.

It’s a job that opened up a world of opportunity for Lafontaine. Charles Keating and Gary Hall Sr. invested a lot of money into establishing the PSC and transforming it into a world-class training center where up-and-coming stars like Gary Hall Jr., an eight-time Olympic medalist, and Anthony Ervin, who tied Hall for the Olympic gold in the 50-meter freestyle in the 2000 Sydney Games, perfected their skills. Lafontaine worked at the club until 2002, save for a three-year stint (1994-97) when he coached at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta.

Then in 2002 the AIS announced it was looking for an assistant coach. It was a no-brainer, a wonderful career move for Lafontaine. An exciting change of scenery for his family — wife Alisa and their four children: Marie-Eve, 14; Pierre-Philippe, 12; Anne-Marie, 10; and Marc-Andre, 8.

“We looked at it more as an adventure than an opportunity,” Lafontaine says. “To me, life is made up of a sum of experiences, and that was going to be a neat experience. Everybody’s always looking at Australia and (saying), ‘Ah, that’s kind of an exciting place to try and visit.’ Well, we had a chance to go live there for a while, so that’s what we did. We made an adventure more than anything else.”

The Lafontaines’ adventure revolves around Canberra, the nation’s capital, which is about 90 miles inland from the nation’s East Coast. The city of 300,000 is a great place, he says, noting there are more than 1,000 kilometers of bike trails and it’s only 1 1/2 hours from the beach. “It’s similar to Flagstaff in terms of a lot of open space,” he adds, saying it conjures up images of the Old West.

“Remember the ‘Mad Max’ movies? It’s just like that. It’s bare,” he continues. “There’s properties in Northwest Australia that are (huge) … There’s one property that is as big as the state of Arizona. It’s a cattle ranch.”

The Australian government’s support of swimming is as big as that ranch — maybe bigger. In addition to the major aquatic clubs in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, there are public pools all over the country, sort of like a Circle K at every intersection in the Valley.

“If there’s a town of 1,500 people, they’ll put a 50-meter pool in it,” Lafontaine says. “Every little village with 1,500 people or more has a pool. So there’s a lot of kids that come in from the little towns to the clubs that have no place to go. That’s when they come to train with us; that’s kind of a neat setup.”

This national commitment to swimming certainly deepens the sport’s talent pool. And it continues at the elite level.

For instance, the Australian team currently in Flagstaff consists of 19 swimmers and a support staff of 14 (that includes three physiologists and a massage therapist).

“It’s really the strength of the Australian team,” Lafontaine says. “Whenever we go away, there is always a lot of support staff. It’s not so the coach can do less, it’s so the coach can do more specific work and pay more attention to the needs of the swimmers.”

Having lived in Phoenix for many years, Lafontaine grew accustomed to how much press coverage baseball and football get in the U.S. He says it’s comparable to the media attention swimming receives in Australia.

“You are going to hear about somebody’s ingrown toenail in baseball,” he says, laughing. “That’s why he’s not going to play tonight, and there’ll be a page about his ingrown toenail here. … Well, there’s half a page about a swimmer that went out to the movies with his girl at a certain time in Australia. And every week there’s things about swimming in the paper in Australia, which is kind of fun also.”

How long will he live in Australia?

Lafontaine admits he’s not sure. His contract is up in December. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in a hurry to leave the Land Down Under.

“They’ve approached me (about) staying there for the next four years,” he says, “and that would be interesting to do. But I think sooner or later I would love to coach in a college setup in the U.S. I think that would be really good. We are keeping our doors open right now.

“I think my family would probably like to stay until 2008, only because the Chinese Olympics are in 2008, and the world championships are in 2007 in Melbourne and the Commonwealth Games are in 2006 in Melbourne. There’s a huge amount of things happening in swimming, and I think in sports the Asian-Australian corridor in the next four years will really be an exciting time in life.”


Remembering Ryan Shay – feature from 2005

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 5, 2005, almost two years to the day before the talented distance runner died of a heart attack while competing in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City.

Shay aims for better results at NYC Marathon

By Ed Odeven

Today, Ryan Shay will begin his morning like millions of other Americans — with breakfast (his usual meal: oatmeal with honey).

And then he’ll get to work.

In reality, he has no time to relax this weekend. After all, the New York City Marathon is today, and Shay will run 26.2 miles through Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island. The race ends at Central Park.

Shay finished ninth at the 2004 NYC Marathon, becoming only the fourth American in the past 11 years to place in the top 10. He ran the race in 2 hours, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. (South Africa’s Hendrik Raamala won last year’s race in 2:09.28.)

In a recent interview, Shay, who has spent much of the past several months training at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training, said he feels he’s on pace to do even better this year.

“I would like to see a minute PR (personal record) in the marathon,” he said, resting on a bench at Lumberjack Stadium. “If I can run between 2:12 and 2:13, I’d be happy.”

The ex-University of Notre Dame runner, placed 15th at the 2005 IAA World Half Marathon Championships in October in Edmonton, Alberta. It was the best-ever finish by an American male at the competition.

So how excited is he for the start of this morning’s race?

“Right now I don’t want to waste any more emotional energy than necessary,” the 26-year-old Michigan native said. “But when I actually do get to New York the excitement level will raise quite a bit. … It’s always good, exciting energy when you’re coming to New York City.”

An estimated 35,000 runners will race today, but not all of them will begin at the same time. A group of 50-100 elite runners will start before the main group.

“I think the field in New York City is a little more difficult than last year,” Shay said. “It’s going to be tougher competition. I think they recruited a few more top-quality international runners, so it’s very possible that I could run a minute faster and still place the same. … I’m a competitor so the goal of mine is to once again finish in the top 10.”

Shay runs between 120-140 miles per week. He runs on various trails and hills and also does what he calls “interval work” at Lumberjack Stadium.

“The training is going well,” he added. “I like the progress I’ve made so far.”

Perhaps the key to Shay’s excellent condition is that he doesn’t take off-days while training for a marathon.

“I won’t take any days off, but I will have a couple recovery days a week,” he said. “Typically, a recovery day will follow a hard interval day or a hard workout day will be followed by a recovery run.”

Shay’s other workout activities, including muscle-core-strengthening exercises using a physio ball, plyometric drills and the use of a speed ladder, have been done at DeRosa Physical Therapy here in town.

“Some people are like, ‘Well, why does a marathon runner need to do that?’ he said, in reference to the muscle-strengthening exercises. “Well, in the marathon you need those smaller stabilizing muscles to help support the larger muscles.”

When he begins today’s marathon, Shay, the 2003 USA Marathon champion and ’03 USA Half-Marathon winner already knows how he’ll approach the race.

“I like to not think about the race for the first half of the marathon,” he said. “I just want to get into my goal pace that I’m going to run.”

Then he said, “You get into your groove, so to speak, and then I just try to take in my surroundings to try to make the time go by a little quicker, at least for the first half of the marathon. … As you begin to hurt more, then you are focusing more on racing and it’s more of a conscious effort now to maintain pace.”

The last four miles, he continued, is when “the racing really starts. … It becomes almost a race of attrition, who can basically maintain the longest.”

In recent years, Shay has trained in Mammoth Lake, Calif., with Abdi Abdirahman, a 2000 U.S. Olympian in the 10,000 meters. The two got along well and came to Flagstaff to train together. The Center for High Altitude Training’s head coach, Dr. Jack Daniels, and Joe Vigil, the center’s senior coaching consultant, have assisted them in their training.

The two feed off each other during practices, Shay revealed.

“With Abdi training with me, I think that he’s maybe learned how to train harder, more consistent, because he always tells me I train harder than anybody he’s ever trained with,” Shay added. “And I’ve learned from Abdi basically how to stay within my limits more to be a little smarter how to push a run and when not to.

“If you want to be a good marathoner, you have to be patient and I feel I’m pretty patient. I had to learn that, though,” he continued. “I wasn’t at first. But with a marathon, it’s patience (that) goes hand in hand with emotional control.”

This means “learning not to exert all your energy too soon.”

Shay predicted that Abdirahman, who has made the jump from the 10K to marathons in recent years, can be a bona-fide threat to win the NYC Marathon today.

“If everything goes his way and he has a great race, he can win it,” Shay added. “He’s that talented and he’s put in the work. … I think for him a top-five finish is definitely reasonable.”


“It’s a long race. There’s so many variables. On any given day, anything can happen. … The marathon is one of the hardest events to predict a winner,” Shay said.

Feature flashback – Federica Pellegrini

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

Headline: Italian Olympian roars to stardom

March 5, 2006

By Ed Odeven

It’s probably safe to assume that the best birthday present Federica Pellegrini ever received was in 2004, her sweet 16th.

The gift arrived six days late, though, on Aug. 11, when the Italian swimmer received a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle at the Athens Summer Games.

After this life-changing performance, Pellegrini, who has been dubbed “the lioness of Venice” because of her fondness for collecting photos of lions, as noted by Swimming World’s Phillip Whitten in a 2004 article, told reporters she didn’t expect to be on the awards podium, but that she showed no fear during the race.

Talk about displaying maturity. Talk about grace under pressure. And talk about, well, becoming a national hero in the process.

Nearly two years later, Pellegrini, who completed a three-week stay in Flagstaff (she trained twice a day at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training with the Italian National Team), is a seasoned swimmer, and a proven competitor on the world’s biggest stage.

“Now she is more confident in her swimming,” Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti said after Thursday’s workout, the team’s final training session in town, at the Wall Aquatic Center. “Her character is very strong. Normally, it’s happy, but maybe in the water her character is (more focused).”

This was Pellegrini’s first training camp in Flagstaff, though some of her teammates, like Massimiliano Rosolino, have been here several times. Like her teammates, Pellegrini expressed optimism looking ahead to competing in Shanghai, China, in early April and the European Long Course Championships in Budapest, Hungary, in late July.

“We trained very well, and when you train very well you are happy … I work very, very hard always and am happy about the work I’ve been doing up here,” she said through Rosolino, who serves as the team’s unofficial interpreter. “So I’m very hungry to start the next few meets.”

Can you blame her? Pellegrini has thrived in big-time competitions. In addition to her effort at the 2004 Olympics, Pellegrini garnered national attention by setting three national records (in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle races) at the 2004 Italian Winter Championships in Livorno in March 2004. She set records with times of 25.47 seconds, 54.40 and 1:59.23, respectively.


Sociologists and sports talk-show hosts point to a definitive time when a star athlete, quietly or noisily, announces they’ve “arrived.”

This might happen during a press conference — “I’m the greatest,” Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali, told reporters and backed it up in the ring — or at a sporting venue.

For Pellegrini, 2004 was her time. It was the year she splashed onto the radar. To put her accomplishments into perspective, remember this: In 2003, she wasn’t ranked in the world’s top 200 in any of her three events.

And now?

She’s coming off another magnificent showing at the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal last July, earning a second-place finish in the 200 free 1:58.73, or 13 hundredths of a second (less time than it takes to blink once) behind France’s Solenne Figues.

“I think when you do very well when you’re young you can stay positive and things can only get better,” said Rosolino, a three-time Olympian

“She’s still very young, but in two or three years … ,” added Castagnetti without completing the thought.

A visible display of excitement was on Castagnetti’s face when he made those remarks. In other words, he expects her to have a bright future.


Pellegrini began her international career as a sprinter, focusing on the 50, 100 and 200 free events. In the years to come, Castagnetti said her best event should be the 400 free.

That’s why her coaches have tailored her training to make that tradition to middle-distance sprints.

“I think that in Beijing (the 2008 Summer Olympics) she’ll swim the 400 freestyle and not the 200,” the coach said. “Normally, now she’s not so strong in the 400.”

Castagnetti said she’s shown some frustration in making this transition, But he’s urged patience for his young pupil.

“I think she’ll come back really strong before Beijing next year in the world championships in Australia,” he added.

When Castagnetti makes these observations, it’s useful to remember that he competed in the 1972 Olympics and knows a thing or two about gauging talent, such as:

“For me, (her success in Athens), is not surprising because I hoped she would win and not (place) second. But for the people in Italy, it’s a surprise.”

Maybe then, but not now. These days, this cheerful signorina has remained level-headed about her accomplishments, enjoying the process of training and competing and starting from scratch after a marquee meet.

After her final March workout at NAU, Pellegrini was content to say that her stay in Flagstaff was a rewarding experience, a chance to take full advantage of this city’s 7000-foot elevation and complete a challenging training camp.

Previously, she had trained at high altitude in Spain and at a ski resort’s pool in northwest Italy.

Naturally, her stay here wasn’t all work, work and more work in the big pool that’s been used by international standouts from all corners of the earth — and locals as well.

Leisure time was part of the plan, too. Two Sundays ago, Pellegrini went horseback riding — on a white horse; she likes white horses, she said, smiling — with a few coaches and teammates in picturesque Canyon de Chelly.

“When I went horse riding I was very happy,” she said.

OK, so it wasn’t a birthday activity, but it was a well-deserved day of fun.


‘I’m an athlete, an artist, and a master’s student, too’

This feature article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Jan. 3, 2004.


By Ed Odeven

Elisabeth Walker is one of the best athletes you’ve never heard of.

Take 1999, for instance, when she set four world records in a span of 10 days.

The encore? A year later, the Canadian swimmer captured three gold medals at a prestigious international competition in Sydney, Australia. All told, Walker set eight world records during the year.

Since then, Walker has continued to establish herself as one of Canada’s aquatic stars. At the Ontario University Athletic Championships in February 2002, Walker shattered four world records in the 50-meter butterfly, 100 butterfly, 100 freestyle and 200 individual medley in one weekend.

While watching Walker swim, you see the graceful, efficient techniques of a seasoned veteran.

It isn’t until she steps out of the pool that you realize, in a sense, that she’s different than other world-class athletes: Walker happens to make her mark competing for the Canadian Swimmers With A Disability (CSWAD) national team, of which she’s been a member since 1992.

Walker does not have the full use of her arms. Below the elbows, her forearms only measure about four inches long; and, as she has abnormally developed hands, she needs to grip most things with both of them clamped together.

Walker has a condition known as dysmelia, which according to the Web site, is “a congenital abnormality characterized by missing or foreshortened limbs, sometimes with associated spine abnormalities; caused by metabolic disturbance at the time of primordial limb development.”

That hasn’t stopped Walker from competing in the S7 category, which includes swimmers with paraplegia, restricted arm and leg movement and partial amputations, as well as cerebral palsy and other disabilities, from doing what she has loved all her life: swimming.

But as she’s grown older, she shrugs off the notion that she’s truly different than other athletes.

Simply put, she says she wants to be recognized as an ordinary person.

“At times, it’s very frustrating,” Walker said after a recent afternoon training session at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center. “People tell me that I’m amazing. But I want them to know that I’m an athlete, an artist, and a master’s student, too.”

Nonetheless, she relishes the opportunity to be a role model for others with various disabilities.

“I find that fulfilling,” she said.


Walker, 26, and the CSWAD team spent Dec. 25-30 training at NAU’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex.

The group, which consists of 15 swimmers ranging in age from 18 to 32, and a support staff of nine, is currently wrapping up its stay in Arizona with a six-day training stint at Phoenix Brophy Prep High School.

Generally, elite-level teams spend three weeks training in Flagstaff’s high altitude (7,000 feet) before returning to train at lower elevations. But highly regarded Canadian sports physiologist Dr. Stephen Norris, who works at the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary and accompanied the team to Arizona, has tailored the 12 days of training to maximize the impact it will have on the athletes.

Thus, the twice-a-day training sessions at NAU were anything but easy.

“It’s very tiring,” Walker said of training at high altitude. “But it’s worth it.”

Added teammate Walter Wu, a 31-year-old visually impaired swimmer from Richmond, British Columbia: “It’s basically eat, swim, sleep for the whole time we’re here.”

Well, mostly. After all, the team did attend the Coyotes-Kings game on New Year’s Eve at the brand-new Glendale Arena.

During the course of the year, CSWAD members train at their hometown clubs with other able-bodied swimmers. Walker, for example, resides in St. Catharines, Ontario, where she works out at Brock University pool for 10 training sessions each week. Occasionally, the swimmers will get together for national camps, which also provide them with a chance to develop team unity and camaraderie.

The next big meet the team will prepare for is an international competition in Denmark in early March.

Canadian coach Craig McCord, who has run a Vancouver swim club for 20 years, said Walker is one of the team leaders.

“Lis has been around for a while, and she comes into these camps with a very business-like attitude,” McCord said. “She knows what she wants to get done and she knows what the expectations of the coaching staff are.

“I think it’s just her level of professionalism. She’s very personable and well spoken. She’s the athlete rep, the person I interact with in regards to how the athletes interact with the coaching staff.”


Walker is a veteran of three Paralympics. As a 15-year-old, she went to the 1992 Summer Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Four years later, she participated in the Atlanta Games and earned a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke.

At the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, she continued her rise to stardom, by earning three gold medals (50 butterfly, 200 IM and a team gold in the 4×100 medley relay) and setting world records in all three events in the process. She also finished fifth in the 100 butterfly.

“To be more than a second below the world record (in the 50 butterfly) is unbelievable,” Walker told reporters in Sydney. “This was my pressure event and it’s a big relief to get it out of the way. The caliber of the athletes at these games has really shot up compared to four years ago.”

Walker’s stepped up her level of performance, too, and even exceeded her own lofty expectations.

“The last one was by far my most successful,” she said, reflecting on competing in Sydney. “I had a goal of one gold medal and one world record there, and I came home with three gold medals and (three) world records.”


Walker has a twin sister, Rebekah, who has customary use of both arms but has a slight learning disability. Growing up, the two were always together, practically inseparable.

Walker said she and her sister are best friends and learned to help each other as kids. Elisabeth took longer to learn everyday tasks like buttoning a coat and tying shoes, while Rebekah was a little behind in her scholastic endeavors.

“For each other, we are the perfect complement,” she said.

Nowadays, Rebekah juggles several jobs, working as a full-time nanny, at a bar and as an artist.

Rebekah also had the opportunity to share one of the most exciting times in her twin’s life four years ago, when she accompanied her sister to Sydney for the 2000 Paralympics. After the conclusion of the games, the two spent three months backpacking through the Australian countryside.

“What a wonderful experience that was to share with my sister,” Walker said, smiling.


Dr. Norris, who regularly works with Canada’s able-bodied national-team athletes, such as the speed skaters, downhill skiers and hockey players, said he was initially nave about how to interact with disabled athletes. But, he said, “In 72 hours, that disappeared.”

Now, he’s as impressed with Walker’s athletic ability as anyone else.

“Of the six billion people on the planet that can swim, she’s in the 99th percentile. She’s a fine swimmer,” Dr. Norris concluded.

Coach McCord, meanwhile, said he’s learned that CSWAD swimmers don’t want special treatment.

“You’re going to obviously have to modify workouts and routines to fit their disability, but in general they get trained the exact same way the able-bodied athletes get trained,” he said.

Walker will compete at the Athens 2004 Paralympics, which will be Sept. 17-28. Not surprisingly, she’s thrilled about the opportunity to compete in the historic city.

“To be there in Greece, where the Olympics originate from, will be an amazing experience,” said Walker, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and recently took a leave of absence from school (she’s working toward a master’s in occupational therapy) to devote more time to prepare for the upcoming Paralympics.

Summing up the rewarding experiences she’s had as a Paralympian, Walker stated, “You get to see the best of both worlds: the great athleticism, and the chance to learn about what people with ‘disabilities’ can do.”

A vital supporting role: Sean Anthony reflects on years of Olympic preparation work in Flagstaff

Sean Anthony enjoys a smile with swimmer Natsumi Hoshi, bronze medalist in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics. Hoshi is wearing a swimsuit featuring a design of Italian swimmer Federica Pellegrini, who has also spent a lot of time training in Flagstaff over the years.  COURTESY PHOTO
Sean Anthony enjoys a smile with swimmer Natsumi Hoshi, bronze medalist in the 200-meter butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics. Hoshi is wearing a swimsuit featuring an image of Italian Federica Pellegrini, who has also spent a lot of time training in Flagstaff over the years.  COURTESY PHOTO
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.

* * *

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.