The rust-colored sign in the arena’s loading dock serves as both a welcome and a warning for players when they step off the team bus.
The greeting part — “Pepsi Center Welcomes You ...” — hardly registers. But the other portion of the message is designed to catch your attention, maybe even making the pulse race a little bit more: “... to the Mile High City. Elevation 5,280 feet.”
Purely a mind game, though. A ploy to plant elevation as a seed of doubt when visiting teams arrive.
Although this version of the women’s Final Four really is up in the air, the higher altitude shouldn’t bother Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame or Connecticut on the court over the weekend.
That searing sensation in the lungs after a few trips up and down the floor? Think of it as imaginary.
The difficulty of taking a deep breath before a crucial free throw late in the game? Again, just a figment.
Or so research indicates from high altitude performance technicians, who say proper hydration and nutrition are almost bigger obstacles in thin air than the altitude itself.
“If one team is really hung up on elevation — ’Oh my gosh, we’re at altitude!’ —and loses it mentally, the opposing team who keeps it together mentally can use altitude as a sixth man,” said Scott Drum, associate professor of exercise and sport science and director of a high altitude performance lab at Western State College of Colorado in Gunnison, where the elevation is 7,700 feet. “But if they come in and believe in their skills and their readiness, they should be fine. It should not affect their game.”
Getting players to buy into that concept, though, is a little more tricky. Because feeling the burn in the lungs is believing.
“It definitely is a real thing,” said Irish senior guard Natalie Novosel, whose team faces Big East rival Connecticut on Sunday. “Honestly, at that point, we’re going to have to suck it up and play through it because it’s the biggest stage and we can’t let climate and altitude get in the way.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma thought he had a solution to the altitude situation, only to have his idea quickly quashed by the team doctor.
“I suggested turning the oxygen off in the plane on the way over there for about an hour and get them used to sucking for breath,” Auriemma said. “But he advised us not to do that.
“So, I guess we’ll have to deal with it when we get there.”
And hopefully not this: headaches, nausea, dizziness and lethargy. Those are all symptoms of acute mountain sickness. But don’t worry, Drum insisted, those signs typically only manifest at 8,000 feet and above.
“If players eat on a regular schedule and drink water, they’ll be fine,” Drum said. “They need to deliberately stay well fed and hydrated.”
That could be the secret to reaching college basketball’s mountain top come Tuesday night’s title game.
Oh, and minimize distractions. No sightseeing excursions since a well-rested team could be the difference in the championship game.
“Everybody is on the same level playing field,” Drum said. “They’re all well trained already, but nobody is well acclimated.”
For Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, the altitude presents a different predicament. She was recently diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a form of facial paralysis.
“We have medicine in the doctor’s hands, because I am concerned about the inner ear and the altitude for myself,” said Mulkey, whose team is 38-0 heading into the game Sunday against Stanford. “Now, for the team, I’ve had them visit with our strength and conditioning coach and (the trainer) on hydration, drink a lot of water prior to going.”
Each team is making a pretty dramatic leap up in elevation.
Notre Dame boasts the highest campus of the four at around 725 feet above sea level. Connecticut (600 feet) and Baylor (470 feet) aren’t too far behind, while Stanford (23 feet) is hardly more than three Brittney Griners (the Bears star who stands 6-foot-8) above sea level.
“Altitude will tweak them a little bit, but not too much — 5,200 feet is not that bad,” Drum said.
Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford certainly agrees.
“When the heat of the game starts going, it goes away,” Ogwumike said. “You’re going to push yourself to the limit.”
Ogwumike and the Cardinal have some experience playing at altitude this season, winning at Colorado and in Utah by a combined margin of 45 points.
“It definitely takes some getting used to, but that’s a tiny factor,” said Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike, a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award given to the top women’s college basketball player. “It’s the Final Four. I’m not even really thinking about that.”
A good strategy, really.
Here’s another helpful hint, on the house and courtesy of Colorado women’s coach Linda Lappe: Get a good sweat going before the game.
“You really do have to warm up differently maybe than in lower elevations,” said Lappe, whose Buffaloes play down the road in Boulder, where the elevation is 5,430 feet. “If you don’t get a sweat going before the game starts, you’ll get a little bit winded and the first eight minutes could really be painful. But as long as you do that, I don’t know if there’s much difference.”
And remember this: Mind over altitude — at least to a degree.
“One of our most fundamental human drives is to breathe. So, we really don’t like anything to change the way we breathe,” said Dr. Robert Roach, the director of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “It’s such a primal instinct to breathe and we’re hard-wired to not let anything get in the way of us and a lungful of air. If we get psyched out by that, we lose the mind-over-altitude challenge. If players relax and adjust well, they’ll do just fine.”
The Irish played their regional round in Denver on their way to the 2001 national title. Back then, coach Muffet McGraw’s approach to altitude was simple: “We really didn’t do anything,” she said.
And this time?
“I’m not planning to do anything special,” McGraw said.