Had Altis, the elite training centre located in Phoenix, Arizona, entered the Beijing World Championships as a nation, it would have finished just outside the top ten in the medal table. Altis CEO, founder and four-time world shot put champion John Godina gives his ten-step guide to building one of the sport’s most successful training environments.

1. A vision of success

John Godina formed Altis (formerly known as the World Athletics Center) out of the World Throws Center six years ago after noticing a gap in the US system that was hindering athletes' progression.

“The inspiration was to set up a support system for those athletes after collegiate level in the US,” he explains. “It is a difficult climb for many athletes here and we needed something to fill that void.”

2. Location, location, location

Having spent the final four years of his medal-laden career (three world outdoor titles, one world indoor, one Olympic silver and one bronze) in Phoenix, AZ, Godina knew the benefits of being based out of the city.

“The weather is very good,” he tells us. “Yet unlike cities such as San Diego or L.A., which also have great weather, living in Phoenix you not only have the weather but have the opportunity to live inexpensively.”

Altis in Beijing ()

Coaches Dustin Imdieke, Andreas Behm and German hurdler Matthias Buhler at the warm-up track in Beijing

3. Facilitating fitness

Altis do not own their own facilities, so establishing a relationship with EXOS – a state of the art strength and conditioning base – was vital. Just five minutes away is the centre’s main training track, which is owned by Paradise Valley Community College. Being able to offer access to these resources has enabled their success.  

“When the athletes join they have facility access, which sounds ridiculous, but in America that is a big deal,” Godina explains. “Here they have access to coaching, strength training, medical assistance, nutritional advice and any of the other partnerships we offer.”

4. Money talks

Godina is honest enough to admit that one of the biggest challenges facing the for-profit organisation was to determine an actual costing for training the athletes.

“In many ways costings are hidden,” he says. “Most countries or federations don’t do a cost base analysis on what it costs to train an athlete. It is difficult [to attain those details] because people don’t share that information.”  

Once the figures were determined, three tiers of service were established: the pro tier, which is the full package, providing a full time lead coach as well as off-track services such as sports science and medicine; the semi-pro tier, which includes working with an assistant coach, some help from head coaches and a reduced amount of support with therapies; and the scholarship system, in which Altis select and pay for a crop of potential athletes to be on pro-level services.

Aries Merritt and coach Andreas Behm ()

Coach Andreas Behm and 110m hurdles world record holder Aries Merritt

5. Convince the athletes

The next challenge was to persuade athletes that there was a value in what Altis were offering. 2008 Olympic pole vault champion Steve Hooker was one of the early success stories, but Godina insists it took time to develop: “We had to explain to the athletes you are going to be charged for this, but for them to trust us that we are going to put it all back in to make sure you are going to be doing well.”

There are now more than 100 athletes at Altis and there's a waiting list for people hoping to come on board. “We are continually adding more staff and different elements that will help the athletes to prove that we are dedicated to them,” adds Godina.

6. Get shirty

Olympic 110m hurdles champion and world record holder Aries Merritt is one of the most high profile names attached to the centre. Overall, 17 Altis athletes from 13 countries and four different continents competed in Beijing last month – five of them came home with medals: Greg Rutherford (GBR) and Fabrice Lapierre (AUS) won long jump gold and silver (pictured in header image), Merritt took bronze only days before undergoing a kidney transplant, Anaso Jobodwana (RSA) won 200m bronze and Justyn Warner (CAN) claimed 4x100m relay bronze.

During the indoor season Altis athletes set 22 personal bests led by Canadian long jumper Christabel Nettey, who leapt a world leading 6.99m, and Canadian sprinter Akeem Haynes, who slashed more than 0.20 from his 60m PB, recording 6.51. Outdoors the team accumulated a staggering 40 PBs, including six national records.

“Many of these people who set PBs are not 18-year-old kids, but mature athletes. If people are setting PBs it shows we are doing our job,” explains Godina. Athletes who post personal bests receive a black and white t-shirt with a gold logo emblazoned on it to mark the achievement (we're buying shares in the clothing company with that particular contract).

7. Freedom to coach

Dan Pfaff is commonly regarded as one of the best coaches in the world, and his presence at Altis as education director and lead jumps coach gives the training environment huge credibility. With the likes of Stuart McMillan, performance director and lead sprints coach, and Andreas Behm, lead sprint/hurdles coach, also on board, Altis has the some of the best coaching expertise anywhere in the world. These experts are also given the space to adhere to their individual philosophies.

“They really like the freedom of the operation which allows them to do what they need to do without getting harassed by some bureaucratic system, which is inevitable in bigger organisations,” explains Godina.

8. Sharing is caring

Committed to a coach education programme to nurture the next generation, Godina believes this approach can only benefit the sport.

“I don’t know if there is another place in the world that prides itself on helping and sharing, as federations or universities usually hoard information. For us to share allows us to grow. It is a very unique brand of education.”

"Altis was the site of the first Olympics – it was Olympia."

9. Never stand still

Godina says Altis is always self-critical and seeking to improve. Recent changes included a complete re-branding from World Athletics Center to Altis. Future plans for the business (which has more than 50 full and part-time staff and contractors working for them) include expanding their medical support, their digital and media approach as well as building their own facility.

“We don’t have a support system like government or federation support, so the only way we can survive is to be as responsive as possible to the needs of the athletes,” Godina says. “We have to do this well otherwise we would be out of business.”

10. Teamwork makes the dream work 

After more than six years in the role, Godina says that he is most proud of giving the athletes “a place called home”.

“We have a 100+ person elite level team, which is pretty cool. The team element is as good as I have seen. It is like a university but better than a university because there are no distractions.”

As Canadian long jumper Christabel Nettey admits: “The centre is not just about athletes who run nine seconds for the 100m, but people who blend together for the common goal of trying to be better. We are all on the same page and there are no negative rivalries.”

Photos: Altis