DENVER – 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.
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.”