Sports biz: Muscle man

Not too long ago, Colorado State University graduate Erik Phillips enjoyed total command of NBA stars like Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash. When he demanded that they bend and twist, they bent and twisted. When he said “jump,” they jumped. When he was done with them, they were drenched in sweat.

Phillips is still at it. Except now, over in the far corner of a converted warehouse space in Arapahoe County on a recent Friday afternoon, his subject isn’t a pro hoops player but a high school soccer player hoping to land a college scholarship. When I enter the room, the tall, trim senior is balanced precariously in a lunge position, catching a medicine ball Phillips gently tosses and quickly flipping the ball back to him from behind her back. Repeated several times, the unusual motion is designed to strengthen muscles around her torso – a part of her body that tends to be overlooked and underworked in a sport that’s mostly legs and feet.

If the regimen works according to plan, the promising young athlete will end up less likely to suffer the sort of debilitating injury that interrupts careers … or worse.

Judging by past performance, there’s a good chance it will work. When he worked as the head strength and conditioning coach for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, Phillips authored an impressive statistic: the fewest days lost to injury of any NBA team.

In fact, the disparity between the number of days Suns players spent off the court and in the rehab room, versus the rest of the league, was stark enough to inspire the curiosity of a Denver health industry executive and sports fan, Craig Keyes. A former internal medicine doctor with a practice on Park Avenue in Manhattan, Keyes at the time was the CEO of United Healthcare Inc.’s Colorado and New Mexico operations.

After getting to know Phillips through a mutual friend, Keyes was fascinated to find out how training techniques for neglected muscle groups could end up guarding against injuries. If the techniques worked as well as they seemed to in the NBA, he wondered, “Then why aren’t they used for mere mortals like us?”

The answer: because nobody had really tried. That is, until recently, when Keyes resigned his corporate job, assembled an investor group and put together the business plan for Centennial-based SportXcel, an athletic training center he hopes will turn into a substantial business within a few years.

Keyes opened the doors about 18 months ago after subjecting the idea to plenty of “what ifs,” reading lots of research materials and getting to know organizations like the nonprofit National Athletic Trainers Association. He also conducted a reality check of his own. An avid hiker, Keyes had been bothered for years by a lingering soreness in his right shoulder. He asked Phillips, whom Keyes had recruited as an early employee, for an assessment. For just a few minutes, Phillips watched how Keyes walked and moved, and came away with a surprising diagnosis: weak ankles.

Sure enough, after a few weeks of balancing and strengthening exercises, the pain vanished. Keyes had been experiencing a common problem among athletes and people who engage in the same activities over and over. In repeating identical motions, they over-tax certain muscles but fail to strengthen others.

Keyes thinks he’s onto something important that he hopes can be turned into a recognized national brand. The idea is to provide a mix of services that cultivate enough customers to generate a profit. The training facility mixes one-on-one training for elite scholarship seekers and youth athletes with group classes for anybody who wants to improve strength and conditioning.

Keyes also is supplementing SportXcel’s work with a parallel, nonprofit foundation that encourages more schoolchildren to exercise. A pilot program staged in 2009 with an Aurora elementary school showed promise not only in elevating physical performance scores, but in improving classroom grades.

Keyes is convinced the link between seemingly disparate elements isn’t coincidental. As a health-insurance executive, he lamented the American tendency to spend lavishly to fix health problems after they occur. Now, with SportXcel, he hopes to prevent problems from ever happening.

“There’s a big gap,” he says, “between where health care stops and where life begins.”
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