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Studies in determination; IMG Academy offers no guarantees other than to test the limits of dedication

BRADENTON, Fla. - The gym is quiet when Zach Zimmerman arrives at 8:30 on a Monday morning, unpacks his gear near courtside and pauses for a moment before the start of another long week. But the silence is only temporary.  For the next three hours, the 15-year-old sophomore from Broomfield rarely rests, slashing and sprinting through basketball and strength-and-conditioning drills conducted under the watchful eyes of his coaches and fitness trainers.  Then, after a shower and lunch, he rushes across the palm tree-lined campus to catch a bus to a private academy, where he sits through four hours of college preparatory courses.  At 5:30 p.m., he hurries back to the domed gym for an additional two-hour practice and more drills and strategy sessions before grabbing dinner, doing his homework and tumbling into bed, thousands of miles from home.

Too much?

Not for Zimmerman, a born grinder. And certainly not for Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova, Freddy Adu, Paula Creamer and the other famous early risers who came of age in Bradenton. Welcome to IMG Academy, a sprawling, 300-acre multisports training facility on Florida's Gulf Coast, where boys and girls from 49 states and more than 80 countries come to chase their dreams.

Driven and privileged, they live in dorms and apartments, eat protein-packed meals in a cafeteria, work with fitness trainers, sports psychologists and media trainers and devote up to six hours a day to their sport of choice: baseball, basketball, golf, soccer or tennis.

"It's a high school, but it's a high school for sports," said 2005 IMG graduate Caitlin Marquis, now a freshman soccer player at the University of Colorado. "You major in a sport, basically."

In a 10,000-square-foot strength-and-conditioning training center, teens in braces and ponytails rub shoulders with visiting superstars such as Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant and Michael Johnson.

At the IMG Academy School, in the heart of the campus, they focus on traditional academic subjects with sports-minded teachers.

On fields and courts, they work for weeks on moves with detail-oriented coaches.

"This is like a laboratory," said IMG Academy basketball program director Joe Abunassar, a former assistant basketball coach at the University of Wyoming. "We build players. We have nine straight months to develop them, so we can push them to their limits. What we're doing is almost as scientific as what Lance Armstrong does.  "You have to love to train - that's the main prerequisite. You have to love basketball. You have to answer the bell every morning when the alarm goes off."

Doesn't come cheaply

Building a teenage champion is intensive, expensive work.  The cost for the sports program alone is $24,000 a year (more for golf and tennis) and $31,900 for athletes who live in dormitories instead of with their families.  For high school students, tuition at IMG Academy is $12,000 more. The cost of a personal trainer and sports psychologist, and for entering and traveling to tournaments, can push annual expenses in excess of $70,000.

"This is not a normal school," soccer director Tom Durkin said.

In fact, driving onto the campus is like coming upon an athletics oasis - it's resplendent with tennis courts (56), soccer fields (four), baseball fields (five), basketball courts (two), swimming pools (two), golf driving ranges (two) and a training complex, where newcomers are tested and analyzed, then handed a training regimen tailored for sport-specific skills they hope to enhance.

"They deal with the whole person here," said Jay Zimmerman, Zach's father. "That's what intrigued us.  It wasn't just the basketball.  It was the weight training, the strength conditioning, the whole person. The things you can't find in a typical high school.  It doesn't mean everyone coming out of there is going to go to a (Division I) school or the NBA. There are no guarantees. But they are going to help you get the most from your talent. Zach's dribble skills have already gotten better. He is more aggressive in taking the ball to the basket. His shooting is getting better because he gets 500 shots a day when he practices."

Schools for budding artists and scholars - New York's famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the Bronx High School of Science and the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan - have thrived for decades in the United States.

But the American sports academy movement didn't begin until 1970, when Warren Witherell established Burke Mountain Academy in northeast Vermont. Four Burke graduates made the 1976 Olympics team, changing the sport - and the way America trains its young athletes.

Following in Burke's tracks were Carrabassett Valley Academy in Maine, which produced superstar Bode Miller, a multimedal favorite for the 2006 Winter Games; Lowell Whiteman School in Steamboat Springs (2002 Olympics moguls silver-medalist Travis Mayer); and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail (2006 alpine hopeful Lindsey Kildow).

The academy system clearly is a winner. Private boarding schools for tennis, gymnastics, figure skating and swimming have churned out Olympians and NCAA champions for three decades.

But team sports were a different matter - until millennial generation kids appeared on the school steps. The stars have come of age in basketball factories such as Oak Hill Academy in rural Virginia, where Carmelo Anthony spent his senior year; Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, which produced Orlando Magic forward Dwight Howard, who went from high school to the 2004-05 NBA All-Rookie first team; and Glynn Academy, in Brunswick, Ga., home of Los Angeles Lakers forward Kwame Brown, the first high school player selected with the first pick in the NBA draft.

In Colorado, Jefferson County schools and the Colorado Rush Soccer Club have combined to create a cutting-edge soccer academy. Students focus on soccer from 7:30 until 9 a.m. and on traditional classroom subjects for the remainder of the school day.  Jeffco supplies the teachers and the Rush the coaches in a private/public partnership that loosely resembles the European model of athletic academies.

Roots in the Soviet model

IMG is the ultimate American sports academy, a descendent, some say, of the clubs in the former Soviet Union, where every athlete was assigned an individual trainer, doctor, masseur, psychologist and sports conceptualizer.

"Basically, we've taken the Soviet model and turned it into a capital-generating one," said Jay Coakley, sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

In 1979, Nick Bollettieri borrowed $50,000 to buy a run-down hotel that he turned into a rudimentary tennis school. The dedicated self- promoter expanded into an adjacent tomato field the subsequent year, building 22 hard courts, 32 barracklike dormitories and a 150-seat cafeteria.

With an infrastructure in place, the Bollettieri Academy began to turn out the brightest stars. IMG stepped into the scene in 1987, paying $7 million for the academy and retaining Bollettieri as president.  "But around 1993, the tennis industry started getting really soft," IMG Academy director Greg Breunich said. "People stopped buying tennis balls and tennis rackets. We had to step back and think what we wanted to do."

As the forces of globalization turned sports into one of the world's more lucrative businesses, IMG transformed itself into a multisports academy, adding baseball, basketball, golf, hockey, soccer and the IMG Academy School to its offerings.

Although they have an option to attend two Bradenton-area private schools, most students make the easy walk to IMG Academy, where assignments are wrapped around practice schedules, trips and weekend tournaments.

"When they sign up, teachers know exactly what they're getting: athletes who are gone at times, who are focused on their sports, who will do academics but only because they have to, sometimes," said Marquis, who grew up in Boulder. "It's hard to get bad grades. No one is going to flunk out. It's a school, you have to go to classes; it's just a little more lenient."

That philosophy appealed to Dan Morrissey. Two years at an Ohio school convinced him he was too focused on school and not enough on hoops. He transferred to IMG Academy and went on to play at Penn State.

At 14, Paula Creamer punched "golf academy" into a computer search engine and IMG popped up. Soon, she was Bradenton-bound.
 "I fell in love with it," she said. "It was kind of like a match made in heaven for me."

A myth about IMG is that it's a haven for prodigies; in reality, most students are not novices or stars.  "If you have a checkbook and you can afford it, you're eligible," said David Donatucci, an instructor at the International Performance Institute. "To me, that's a shame. This should be the elite of the elite."

But it's still a dream factory, and parents want results - sooner rather than later in many cases. The gap between expectations and reality causes anxiety for coaches, parents and players.

"There's tremendous pressure for kids to succeed from their parents," said Durkin, the soccer director. "There is competition among the kids themselves. Everyone wants guarantees. But there is still something called natural talent."

Developing talent is IMG's primary goal. About 12,000 junior, college, professional and recreational athletes shuffle through the campus every year, most on a short-term basis. At the International Performance Institute, famous and anonymous athletes pump iron next to one another, as Zimmerman and some classmates recently discovered.

"(Maria Sharapova) was, like, 15 feet away," he said. "We all were looking over there, going 'ooh' and 'aah.' "

On another day, Zimmerman observed a pickup game involving NBA players, including Portland Trail Blazers point guard Sebastian Telfair, whose floaters dazzled the high school sophomore.

"I've been trying to do a floater, but his was ridiculous," he said. "It was like 12 feet in the air - and it went right in. It was kind of cool, watching 'em in the summer."

Added Abunassar, the basketball director: "When you have an NBA player here and a sophomore over there and they're doing the same drills, well, there's nothing like it in the world."

IMG Academy plays a regular schedule of games against area schools, including home contests that many IMG students attend. But they don't look like typical games. Standing on the sideline, coaches focus more on footwork and court awareness than the scoreboard.

"Our goal isn't to beat Oak Hill Academy, it's to develop players," Abunassar said.

IMG psychologists - or "mental conditioners" - rely heavily on videotape, a technique Bollettieri introduced with his first wave of prodigies. After a blown shot, for example, Pete Sampras unconsciously would tighten the muscles in his left arm, a prelude to a bad patch. Because of some nifty camerawork, the future superstar nipped the problem in the bud.

When Morrissey arrived at IMG, he had a hot shot - and a temper.  "He was so intense that if he missed his first three shots, forget about it," Abunassar said. "He couldn't play anymore. You could see his energy level drop. He'd start pouting. He looked ridiculous."
Morrissey was convinced his coaches were exaggerating the problem until he watched incriminating tape.

"Film doesn't lie," Abunassar said.

During the first week of the fall semester, stress specialist Chris Passarella followed three new students as they played nine holes at El Conquistador Country Club, which IMG recently purchased for about $7 million.

"I'm trying to get an awareness of their games. How dominant are they on the golf course? Do they have really ritualized routines? Or are they very social? Are they approaching the ball talking? There are a lot of things you can get involved in, draw a lot from in terms of their personality," said Passarella, who teaches IMG students techniques for coping with stress, for visualizing a winning performance and for setting specific goals.

For some, the work never stops. During his days at the golf academy, David Gossett rose every morning at 5:30 on his own to run. In spring of her senior year, Creamer missed an LPGA tournament cut because of a bad short game. She postponed her flight, woke early the next morning and worked on her shots around the green for four hours.

Another student showed up for an early morning workout during Hurricane Harvey in 1999, even after IMG had canceled all campus activities.

"I came in at 6, and the walls are blowing back and forth, the rain is coming down like crazy and there he is, waiting in the middle of the dome, sitting on the middle of the floor, ready for his workout," Donatucci said.

There are critics who say the academies are a way for IMG to recruit potential clients before they even turn professional or that they're a fantasy beyond the reach of all but a relative handful of youngsters.

And what if things don't pan out?

"When you go to a performing arts (school) in the middle of New York City," Coakley said, "and it's a mixed set of students with bands and music and voice and other things, and you're in the middle of New York City, you are expanding your world in significant developmental ways.

"If you're in a relatively isolated kind of place, at an academy where you are meeting people who have really similar kinds of interests to yours, and don't have an opportunity to mix in a wide way, well. . . ."

But as he heads to campus to pick up Zach after another busy day, Jay Zimmerman says he's impressed with IMG, where his amiable son studies basketball in exacting, slide-rule detail.

"The key is that you've got to have a love for the sport. You can't wish that on a child. If you don't like it, you're going to be gone in a month," said the senior Zimmerman, who has moved his family to Bradenton for the school year.  It's kind of like college, with that first-semester flunk-out. You either understand what it takes and make the commitment to be a good college student or you're back in your hometown looking for something to do."

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