WORDS BY LIKE THE WIND – PHOTOGRAPHY SUPPLIED BY ON
Like the Wind visited On’s youth training camp in the Swiss town of St Moritz to meet the 14 young participants from across Europe
Early morning, October 2023. The thin air does little to offset St Moritz’s early morning chill. Before the sun has crept above the surrounding mountain ridges, the path around the lake that sits just to the east of the town crunches with frost. The open- air running track glitters with icy particles. The young runners taking part in On’s second annual youth camp, seeing the town for the first time, are wrapped up in insulated jackets, their breath visible as they explore their home for the next 10 days.
St Moritz sits 1,800m above sea level in the Engadin valley. The town is perhaps best known as a winter resort (it’s been the venue for two winter Olympic Games) but in other seasons, it is the perfect European location for athletes wanting the benefits of altitude and first-class training facilities.
As an organisation, On is committed to supporting young athletes. Silja Mühlebach, On’s project manager for athlete strategy and partnership, explains: “The initiative is a contribution to the promotion and support of young talent in Europe, and an opportunity for young talents to gain insights into a professional training environment. The youth camp aims to show young athletes what it means to live and train as a professional athlete at a time when many of them are considering whether they want to continue pursuing a professional athletic career.”
A TASTE OF THE ATHLETE LIFE
On launched its inaugural youth camp in 2022 with the goal of implementing a dedicated project focused on supporting young runners. The programme is anchored in On’s understanding that for many athletes, there is no professional training environment – such as the one that On has built for the On Athletics Club in St Moritz. The goal is to give young athletes the opportunity to experience living and training in an environment geared towards excellence.
The young people selected for the camp benefit from expertise, too. One of their guides is Emelia Górecka, a former professional athlete with impressive results to her name, including four individual medals – two of them gold – at European junior cross-country championships between 2010 and 2013. For Emelia, this camp is a great opportunity for the young people to experience life as a professional athlete. Emelia’s role is part inspiration and part “big sister” to the 15-to-18-year-olds who have come from France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and the United Kingdom. Emelia is also responsible for delivering a training programme developed in conjunction with fellow On athlete Chris Thompson.
St Moritz is ideal for training because all the facilities are close together. As Emelia and the team conduct a tour of the town, it becomes immediately clear that the track, lakeside path (perfect for recovery runs), the well-appointed gym, swimming pool and supermarket are all in close proximity. And the house On rents on behalf of the On Athletics Club (OAC) is opposite the supermarket.
The group of young runners stops on the road between the OAC house and the supermarket and Emelia explains that the athletes will be responsible for preparing their own food while they are in St Moritz. This is perhaps the first “athlete life” lesson the group will learn: they are responsible for what they eat. Indeed, later in the day it is revealed that the British contingent cooked porridge for breakfast, which some of the other participants had never eaten before. (“It was pretty good,” 17-year-old Biel, one of two runners from Spain, reported back.)
Among any international group of strangers, there is an understandable tendency for those from the same country to stick together. And as the team tours St Moritz, that initially appears to be the case, although pretty quickly it’s apparent that connections are being formed between athletes from different regions.
SHARING A PASSION
For Jess, a 17-year-old from the Lake District in the north of England, a chance to learn from athletes from other places is one of the best aspects of the camp. Lera, a 16-year-old from Lower Saxony in Germany, agrees, saying that she’s really interested in meeting all the runners from around Europe. Carla, an 800m specialist who lives in Barcelona, agrees. “What I am enjoying most is sharing moments with people from other places who have the same passion for running as me,” she says.
Aside from forging international connections, the other big benefit the young people on the camp talk about is the opportunity to see what life as a professional runner is like. Albert, 16 years old and living in Barcelona, says that he is open to the idea that making a living from running might be a possibility. “This camp will help me to understand what it is like,” he says, “and so when it comes to the time [to decide whether to go professional] I’ll know much more about what it involves.”
Emelia Górecka agrees that gaining an insight into the life of a professional will help the young runners make decisions about their future. “I think this camp will be a nurturing experience,” she says. “And at the same time, the young people will be responsible for themselves in the way that professional athletes are.”
To further enhance the experience of the camp, OAC athletes including Aimee Pratt and Cari Hughes – as well as their coach, Thomas Dreissigacker – provide guidance, advice and inspiration. For Aimee, the youth camp is a chance for youngsters to gain an insight she did not have as she rose through the ranks. “A training camp like this might have made my journey easier,” she explains. “I believe that the best advice for young runners is to keep a balance in their lives. It is easy to get totally focused, but that is not sustainable.” Drawing on the experience of her years as a full-time athlete, Aimee is able to impart potentially invaluable wisdom to the young runners.
Cari Hughes echoes Aimee’s thoughts. “I believe that physical development as a junior athlete is key to future success,” she says. “And to do that, young runners need to have a good balance in their lives and surround themselves with the right people.”
After 10 days together, it is apparent that the team dynamic has changed. “I’m incredibly proud of how the group developed over the course of the training camp,” notes Emelia. “Socially, the group blossomed throughout the week, which is something that I am extremely happy about. The athletes helped each other with translations and visited each other’s apartments to socialise and cook together. I believe many of the athletes will stay in touch after this camp, and hopefully make long-term friendships within the sport.”
The athletes all agreed with Emelia’s assessment. As Tiziana from Switzerland explains: “I enjoyed meeting all of the new people. When we were together, we learned new words and languages. I learned how the other athletes cooked. We all liked fajitas, potatoes and carrots! I want to try and stay in contact with the other athletes. I think this is important because I want to see how they train and learn more about them throughout the years.”
The mutual inspiration and strong bonds formed between the young athletes at the camp will undoubtedly help them to make positive choices about their own futures. But, perhaps more importantly, those 10 days in St Moritz are helping to build a strong future for global competitive running.
Find out more at www.on-running.com