In a dreary and overcast morning, a thick layer of fog blankets the mountains on the edge of Colorado Springs, making the steps of what locals call “the incline” look even more ominous than usual.
For those who have set foot on the incline’s path before, with its loose rocky base and wooden ties left behind from an old mountain railway, the climb toward the clouds is 2,000 vertical feet of straight up misery.
Simply put, it’s the ultimate Stairmaster.
Usually packed with hikers, members of the U.S. Women’s National Team are among the only climbers on this gray and misty morning, tackling the grueling cardio workout as part of their Performance Evaluation Camp.
“If I’m laying in the middle of the path on your way up, just move me out of the way,” jokes assistant coach Dave Flint as he leaves to get a head start.
The team has been divided into six groups for the week in Colorado Springs, competing against each other in various activities in hopes of earning bragging rights as the overall winner at the end of camp. Each group is sent off in two-minute intervals, the red team taking off first on what looks like a never-ending staircase.
In the blink of an eye, the lighthearted mood at the base camp shifts with the first steps upward, the laughter giving way to focused determination found in the DNA of elite level athletes embarking on the challenge at hand. As the team makes its way into the steepest part of the climb, all that can be heard are the sounds of the uneven gravel crunching under each agonizing step and heavy breathing, steadily increasing as fatigue starts to set in.
“I don’t think I would want to do this again,” incline rookie Jinelle Zaugg says half jokingly as she makes her way up the mountain.
If there is one thing most players agree on, it’s that having done the climb before and knowing what’s ahead make for an easier mental task to tackle. For the players facing this challenge for the first time, the anticipation is worse than the climb itself.
“There are 30 of us and all the ones who have done it before were talking about it all week,” says defenseman Rachael Drazan. “If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what to expect.”
Rookie or veteran status aside, the incline provides both a physical and mental challenge to even the fittest athlete, one of the reasons it was added to the camp itinerary three years ago.
“We wanted to have some fun. We wanted to do different things,” says Teena Murray, the team’s strength and conditioning coach. “We didn’t want to be just in the weight room and doing traditional workouts, so we incorporated some yoga and the incline for some variety, and to be kind of a mental challenge for them.”
While “fun” is hardly the word most people would use to describe the incline, it ignites the competitive fire within each player and the strong support system within the team as they stick together in small groups to help each other out.
“We’re in this together,” Angela Ruggiero says to her climbing buddy, Monique Lamoureux, as they pass the false summit with about a quarter of a mile to go. “Let’s set a goal. We’ll get to those boulders and then we’ll take a two second break.”
Lamoureux nods at the plan, holding her determined gaze on the step directly in front of her.
The top is well within reach even though it’s not visible through the thick fog and the light mist hovering over the summit. The only gauge that the end is near is the sounds of teammates above, their encouraging cheers echoing off the mountain.
“We did it as a team, and that’s also an important aspect of this,” says Ruggiero, who cut four minutes off her time from last year. “Taking that into a game situation where your buddy is tired and you’re saying, ‘Hey, you got a little more in the tank. Keep going.’ ”
At the top, the team poses for a few group photos, and the laughter returns as they share the various methods they resorted to near the end.
“I just didn’t look up,” laughs Amanda Kessel, a rookie to the group after starring on the Under-18 squad.
“This was my go-to move,” adds forward Meghan Duggan, demonstrating how she used her hands to push down on her legs with each step.
Envisioning an overtime game in the Olympics served as mental motivation for many during the climb.
“It translates onto the ice because in the third period against Canada or overtime we have to be able to dig deep and encourage each other and kind of feed off each other,” says defenseman Kerry Weiland, who has now scaled the incline three times.
The red team was awarded a gold medal by the fictional “International Incline Federation” for finishing with the lowest combined time, but the teams’ 10-minute improvement over last year’s average is the real accomplishment, indicating how far their physical fitness has come in a short time.
While an incline gold medal is a nice reward, it’s a small step on the way to what the team has its collective sights set on – Olympic gold in Vancouver.