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By Ben Pearce
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
With less than 100 days until London 2012, Ben Pearce followed in Team GB’s footsteps with a gruelling training camp in Paphos.
The British team geared up for the 2004 Olympics at the Coral Beach Hotel and Resort in Cyprus, leaving them a short hop from Athens and with similar conditions to those that they could expect on competition day.
Arriving in stages, Team GB were at Coral Beach in Paphos a week before the Games and stayed there throughout, using it as their headquarters and even holding their very own opening ceremony party for those who were not required to carry the flag at the Olympic Stadium.
The resort’s general manager Dia Charalambous said: “We had Cypriot athletes at the Olympics in 2004 but we were cheering for the British.”
With 420 rooms, Coral Beach is the largest hotel on the island – and Britain’s stay underlined its status as one of the top sporting retreats in the world.
During my visit, I share the grounds with the German Paralympic team and the French military, as well as the standard hotel guests.
Team GB’s relationship with the resort has continued, and the swimming team are regular visitors. They are booked in for a training centre in July, and around 70 members of the British Olympic team were at Coral Beach in 2009 and 2011.
Arriving in my luxurious room at the five-star hotel is like walking into a James Bond scene. There is food waiting, a bottle of wine, a fruit platter and the table is set for two as I look out onto my balcony, and the waves that crash onto the beach just 100 metres away.
However, this only serves to underline the lonely life of the Olympian. This is no holiday, and the morning alarm provides an untimely reminder of why I am really in Cyprus – to train.
Of course, that doesn’t stop me from taking advantage of the full English breakfast – but it is a mistake that I only make once.
When national team managers arrange a training camp at Coral Beach, they often request a wider range of cereals and pasta.
After spending the first day attempting to keep my sausages and bacon down, I realise that there is probably a reason for that, and follow a rather sterner diet.
Our first trial comes in the Olympic pool, which was built specifically for Team GB in 2004 and was consequently constructed in just nine weeks.
Fifty metres long, 20m wide and 2m deep, there is no shallow end because even the slightest changes in depth can affect the swimmers’ lap times.
The pool is heated to 27 or 28 degrees – the optimum temperate for the muscles – at a cost of 500 euros a day during the winter months. It also features an underwater camera which allows coaches to observe and correct technique.
Amazingly, we are informed that Team GB’s swimmers will swim 250km a week, in addition to dry-land training.
I am battling a cold, but my sniffles are put into very real perspective as I see a German paralympian with no arms and one leg getting ready to train in the pool.
“You think of the mental fortitude that they’ve had to develop over time,” says Jason Smith, Coral Beach’s sports supervisor. “You get to mix with that a lot here, there are some real inspirations.”
Smith, who spent nine years in the British Army, is our personal trainer for two days - and he immediately has some advice for improving our form in the freestyle.
Novice swimmers tend to lift their elbows above their heads, raising their dense, heavy shoulder muscles out of the water. That wastes energy so we are instructed to use our arms as spears, thrusting straight forward – with noticeable results and easier lengths.
Next we are off to visit the resort’s two gyms – one for normal hotel guests, and a designated Olympic gym for athletes and serious trainers.
The Olympic gym is surprisingly sparse, or “spartan”, as Smith calls it – an appropriate reference to the legendary warriors of Sparta, whose exceptionally toned bodies were immortalised in the film ‘300’.
There are no treadmills or cross-trainers here - just a handful of rowing machines for warming up, a lot of floor space and some very big weights.
What follows is utterly gruelling as Smith puts us through our paces with 20 minutes of circuit training with 7.5kg weights – three exercises done back-to-back, followed by a 60-second break and then a further four rounds of the same routine.
After the second round, I wish I was back behind my desk in London. After the fourth I’m retching, and after the fifth I’m flat on my back.
“That’s how you’re supposed to look at the end,” says Smith – which is kind, because everyone else is standing around chatting. Somehow it feels like they are the better champions of health and fitness.
“Intensity is important,” says Smith. “Some people say they don’t sweat when they exercise. That probably means they’re going easy on themselves and not realising their full potential.
“People also say they don’t have time to exercise - but that only took 20 minutes and you’ve worked virtually every muscle in your body.”
We endure a similar experience the following day with a run outside the resort’s grounds, followed by sprints up a hill and then more circuit training as we run between two lines, doing press-ups, sit-ups and other generally painful exercises at each end.
That is followed by my first experience of Pilates. I am expecting a nice relaxing hour of whale music and stretching in the sun, and am sorely disappointed as ravaged muscles are blitzed for another hour.
The key characteristic of a Pilates instructor seems to be an inability to count as Mike Red promises eight reps and then consistently tricks us into doing 10.
Meanwhile, we are taught the importance of ‘positive mantras’ – motivational phrases which Olympic athletes will say to themselves on the start line as four years of training boil down to the following seconds.
Phrases like “I can and I will” and “I have strength within me” have stuck with me, and were particularly helpful on a seemingly endless sequence of hills the following day as we grab our bikes and head into the mountains to follow in the tyre tracks of Team GB’s cyclists.
Our leader is Thomas Wegmuller, an ex-professional cyclist who represented Switzerland and his sponsors in the Tour de France three times between 1989 and 1991, and now takes holiday-makers on cycling days around Cyprus.
Incredibly, he reveals that he used to consume 8,000 calories on race days – which makes me feel a bit better about my usual diet.
It is our third day of training in Cyprus and my legs are highly unimpressed with the latest trial as we cover 25km of hills in two hours – but that is nothing given that Olympic cyclists will spend an average of four to five hours a day on their bikes.
Britain’s military presence in Cyprus has resulted in a fine network of roads throughout the mountains, which are rarely used by cars. That, combined with the option of flatter routes along the coast, makes Cyprus ideal for Olympic cyclists and amateur enthusiasts alike.
In February, Team GB competed in the Sunshine Cup in Cyprus, with our own Olympic hopeful Liam Killeen finishing third behind the world champion Jaroslav Kulhavy, and Team Sky were also training in the Troodos Hills recently.
I return to England as a better swimmer, noticeably fitter and reminiscing about my five-star treatment at Coral Beach.
However, I am also waddling with exceedingly sore legs as I get off the plane, with any lingering dreams of becoming an Olympian well and truly dashed.
Team GB’s medal hopes may not have to sit in an office all day, and they may get flown out to sunny Cyprus to practise – but training is far too much like hard work.
Summer prices at Coral Beach Hotel and Resort start at £81 per person per night, on bed and breakfast, while winter prices start from £32. This includes group sporting activities like Pilates, while personal training costs £40 per hour. Check the website http://www.coral.com.cy for details, and on the use of the Olympic pool, which is subject to availability.
Bike Cyprus and Mountain Bike Cyprus both provide opportunities for every level of cyclist, including full mountain and road bike holidays with trails and routes picked for the skill level of the holidaymaker.
Bike hire starts from around £8 per day, with holidays and skills courses from around £290 per person for seven days. Visit www.bikecyprus.com or www.mountainbikecyprus.com for details.