With Colorado Springs, Colorado feeling the devastating effects of raging wildfires it would seem an apt locale for a firefighter skilled in battling wilderness blazes. For full-time firefighter Jimmy Watkins, however, the fires have forced the man representing the United States in the match sprint at the London Olympics to return to his native California to fine-tune his fitness in the month prior to the Games.
Watkins had recently arrived in Colorado Springs to reap the benefits of a solid block of altitude training at the US Olympic Training Center's velodrome, but the open-air facility is anything but an ideal venue to prepare for his Olympic Games debut in light of the surrounding wildfires.
Watkins had amassed enough time off from his fire department in Bakersfield, California, via vacation time accrual plus the utilisation of shift trading with his co-workers, to completely clear his calendar of work responsibilities through to the Olympic Games and the world-class track sprinter is determined to make the best of the precious allotment of time still at his disposal.
"It's kind of screwed up our training with the smoke," Watkins told Cyclingnews. "The velodrome here is outdoors so the only plan we have now is to go back to L.A. [to the Home Depot Center Velodrome] and train there because here there's a good chance to pick up a respiratory infection [in Colorado Springs]."
The 29-year-old's entire cycling career has taken place while employed as a full-time firefighter in Bakersfield, California. Watkins began cycling at 21 years old to build fitness for his demanding profession and soon found his way to the track.
"The reason I started cycling was just to stay in shape and then I started racing a little bit on the road," said Watkins. "I found track cycling because I was always a sprinter growing up in the sports I played so I gravitated towards that. I started training full-time after 2007 and in 2008 I won nationals.
"For my entire cycling career I've kept my full-time job as a firefighter. We work on average 56 hours a week and we have time to train and work out, everybody is just as far as staying in shape. A lot of my training is done on a stationary bike, plus rollers, and I can lift weights at work as well. So it's just a matter of trying to find the time between when things get busy at work answering calls.
"I drive to Los Angeles on average once a week. I'm about 120 miles from Carson, California and the Home Depot Center Velodrome and that's where the USA Cycling sprint program is located with Jamie Staff. That's where I train [on the track]. There's a closer velodrome in Encino, but it's not really worth doing sprints on because it's not banked quite enough."
Balancing work and a world-class cycling training regimen are difficult enough, but Watkins also manages to meet the demands of being a husband as well as a father to a two-year-old daughter. Through it all Watkins has four national titles in his palmares, plus owns or shares three national records: flying 200m (9.876), kilometer time trial (1:01.085) plus team sprint (44.036) with Dean Tracy and Michael Blatchford.
The United States is sending six athletes to compete on the track in London. Sarah Hammer was the only automatic qualifier and she will contest both the omnium and the team pursuit. Hammer will be joined by Dotsie Bausch, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo in the team pursuit. Various combinations of the foursome have celebrated a string of successes in international competition, including a previous world record set in May of 2010 by Bausch, Hammer and Tamayo and a world championship silver medal in 2011 from Bausch, Hammer and Reed.
Bobby Lea received the discretionary selection to compete in the men's omnium, while Watkins earned the nod for the men's sprint.
"What they did is look at the past two years' results as far as points accumulated and training times, then we did a week of benchmark testing to see where everyone was at," said Watkins regarding the selection process for the men's sprint. "I came out on top of that and set a track record [in Carson] and made huge gains from just being able to train full-time."
With his Olympic debut looming, Watkins is pragmatic about his ambitions for London. "I'll be happy if I go faster than I've ever been, do a personal best. I'd obviously love to compete for a medal but I just want to do the best I can, not have any regrets on things I should have done differently and give it my all."
Once Watkins has completed his Olympic Games competition, what will the future hold for his cycling career?
"When I get back from the Games I'll have zero vacation and no time to take off. For the year after it will definitely be a re-building year just to kind of gain some of that back and I'll look at competing after that. I love doing it and if you look at guys like Jamie Staff and Chris Hoy who compete well into their 30s I don't think the physical limitations will be a problem."