Lincoln Park conditioning center fills niche for young athletes

When the Duluth Denfeld boys hockey team peeled off their sweaty jerseys and unlaced their skates after practice Thursday, their workout was not finished.

Skating treadmill
Matt Keno of Denfeld uses a skating treadmill while working out with his hockey team at Athletic Republic in the Duluth Heritage Sports Center complex Thursday evening. Clint Austin /

When the Duluth Denfeld boys hockey team peeled off their sweaty jerseys and unlaced their skates after practice Thursday, their workout was not finished.

The Hunters left the Duluth Sports Heritage Center rink for conditioning training next door at Athletic Republic, a new sports training center in the remodeled Clyde Iron Works complex in Duluth's Lincoln Park/West End.

Twice a week during the high school hockey season, the Hunters will shed their gear, throw on shorts and T-shirts and go through a 45-minute conditioning workout to try to remain strong and healthy for a playoff push in late February. The Denfeld boys will use the added training to "unlevel the playing field," as Athletic Republic's slogan says.

"The season is long, and there are a lot of practices, but this conditioning will help us through," said defenseman Andrew Doig, a senior captain. "We do this to get stronger and faster. When you do it, you play better and you get more endurance. It's also good for team building."

Athletic Republic, a 20-year-old company with 160 training centers in North America, opened one of 17 new locations this year in Duluth on Nov. 25. The company also owns five other centers in Minnesota under the name Acceleration.


Athletic Republic has about 5,000 square feet split into four areas to improve athletic performance: a netted field turf area to work on throwing and kicking; a 40-yard running track; a weight training area with machines to improve strength in athletic movements; and, most importantly, two "super treadmills." As athletes do the movements, trainers teach them technique and chart their results against the more than 600,000 athletes in the Athletic Republic database.

While Denfeld paid for the sessions with fundraising money, Athletic Republic CEO Charlie Graves said even during the recession, parents are still spending on their children's sports training.

"People will sacrifice their spring vacation to make sure that their children have the best education or the best tutoring or the best coaching," Graves said.

"I put this in the same bucket. It's a family investment, not necessarily discretionary spending."

Athletic Republic says their "science-based approach" is validated by $315 million in college scholarships that its athletes have earned in the past five years. But, overall, the chances of obtaining an athletic scholarship are miniscule.

For every Toby Gerhart, a Heisman Trophy runner-up who trains at an Athletic Republic in California, there are hundreds of fellow athletes who never see the field in college.

In the U.S., about 32,000 boys play high school hockey, while only 4 percent, or about 1,400, are playing NCAA Division I hockey, according to figures from the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations from earlier this decade. In football, the percentage of those earning Division I or Division II scholarships is about 2.7 percent, and in women's volleyball it's 1.7 percent.

"It's a goal of the parent and a dream of the child. How do you tell anybody that they can't do something?" Graves said. "You can be proven wrong all the time. What we try to do is give them a sense of reality that this type of training is going to give them the opportunity to be better. Pending the hard work and dedication and great coaching and exposure, and keeping them injury free, then maybe -- just maybe -- they have that chance to play at that D-I level."


About 70 percent of its customers are young athletes ages 11 to 17 looking to improve their athletic performance, with more modest goals of making the varsity squad or earning more playing time, Graves said from corporate headquarters in Park City, Utah.

Typically, the parents of a young athlete will pay about $600 for 20 or more one-hour sessions to improve the child's agility, strength and speed in a variety of exercises.

"Our philosophy is test, teach and train," said Graves, whose company employs about 1,000 trainers. "Unlike a coach, our teaching is about the movement skills they need to be better at their position."

For a football linebacker, Athletic Republic will train the player to move quicker from side to side and straight ahead to stop other teams from running the ball or to move quicker in a backpedal to deny passes, Graves said.

The top selling point for Athletic Republic is its "super treadmills" for both running and skating. Hockey players can skate on a plastic, 6-by-6-foot sheet at speeds up to 17 mph and a 20 percent incline. Trainers can videotape players skating and provide immediate verbal and visual feedback on their form.

"The trainer can show things like not getting your knees high enough or your stance being too high," said Kirk Bustrom, the Duluth franchise owner, who partners with Chris Bell of Impact Sports Training. "It's a big draw for us."

In Duluth, more than 70 percent of the athletes at the center will be hockey players, Bustrom said, including current routine visits from the Denfeld boys, the Duluth Central boys team and the Duluth girls team. Bustrom, a former business consultant, said he needs 90 athletes to break even.

"This has really made a difference in their progress as players," said Kevin Smalley, Denfeld's coach for the past seven years. "We have to work at maintaining their strength to endure the wear and tear they go through.


"The goal is to be the strongest for the playoffs in February and March," Smalley said. "If you don't do something, then you lose the strength that you've built in the summer."

Help with pull-ups
Head trainer Chris Bell (from left), Jason Johnson and Matt Keno help Andrew Doig with pull-ups at Athletic Republic in the Duluth Heritage Sports Center complex Thursday evening. Clint Austin /

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