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: “... 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.
High altitude performance technicians 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.
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.
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.”
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.