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It Takes a Village

Dr. Steve Burton made millions diagnosing sleeping patterns. Now he wants to build his own dream — a world-class Olympic campus in Chesterfield County.

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As you read this, if you feel the urge to pinch yourself, to wake up from a state of semiconsciousness, a distended wave of disbelief, of blurry visions of Olympic skaters, fencers, volleyballers, swimmers, curlers, laser tagers and cyber athletes, and any number of seemingly surreal athletic competitions, all taking place in a 250-acre forest just off Powhite Parkway in Chesterfield County … don't.

Dr. Steve Burton will see you now. A psychologist who specializes in sleeping patterns and other psychological disorders, Burton has a plan, a fantastic plan. But you must believe and trust the dream.

Burton can help you with this. He created the first computerized sleeping diagnostic system, with those tiny sensors that stick to your skull, and the digital talking heart monitor. He can explain, just give him a few minutes. … He's on the ice, wearing yellow goggles and a skintight suit made of Lycra and Kevlar, flying around on long, thin speed skates with a shiny gray helmet shaped like a bowl. … He'll see you just as soon as he's done pedaling at high speeds around Southside Speedway, on a bicycle with no brakes, wearing a green-and-red polyester suit and a vented helmet.

If you are dreaming, Burton can offer a diagnosis: Come to the Q. Sign up for as little as $34 a month and he'll open the gate to his $175 million dream machine, where you can hobnob with Olympians and world-class athletes, where you can speed around the velodrome on a bicycle, swim alongside the next Michael Phelps, skate behind futuristic-looking speed skaters with bulging thighs and alien helmets.

But you have to be willing to go fast — really, really fast.

“Speed skating is like NASCAR on ice,” says the 53-year-old Burton, his eyes widening. It's what started his vision seven years ago during the 2002 winter Olympics.

Burton and his son, Josh, found themselves glued to the television, falling in love with the sport and Apolo Ohno, the American phenom on ice turned “Dancing With the Stars” heartthrob. Burton and a couple of his partners had just purchased an ice rink in Chesterfield, so he and Josh and a couple of friends decided to launch the Virginia Speedskating Organization. They hired nationally renowned speed-skating coach, Sun-Tae Chea, who moved his family from South Korea to Richmond in 2006.

The team grew from Steve and Josh to more than 50 skaters, attracting budding Olympians and a hotbed of South Korean skating talent.

It's quite a deal: The team's members don't pay for the coaching, the ice time or any of the equipment. Most of it's supplied by Burton's club. All that's asked, Burton says, is that the team members help work the club's bingo fundraisers once a month. Most of the operational expenses are paid for with bingo money. The system seems to be working. Three to four times a week, families from as far away as Maryland drive to Richmond to bring their young to train with Sun-Tae and his wife, Ji-Young, at the Richmond Ice Zone, the rink that Burton and his partners bought in 2001.

Behind the car dealerships and insurance offices and the construction contractors off Midlothian Turnpike, the rink turns into a multicultural Olympic village. There's Wanda Stewart and her son, Jair, who come from King George County three times a week — about an hour's drive both ways — so Jair can parlay his love of roller-skating into something faster on the ice. And then there are the future Olympians. Take Tommy Hong, for example, a 10-year-old phenom who set national records for his age group in March and has the potential to be an Olympic champion, Burton says, already reaching speeds of 25 mph on the ice.

“It was a gamble,” says Jim Heo, who packed up his family and his businesses in Laurel, Md., and moved to Richmond so that his son, Jonathan, 13, could train with the best and pursue his dream of becoming an Olympic speed skater. His wife and kids first moved here 10 months ago so Jonathan could train three or four times a week with Sun-Tae, while Heo stayed behind and closed down his two beauty supply stores. He burned through his savings and recently opened a business on Belt Boulevard. The economy had already dredged his stores in Maryland, and Heo figures his son's aspirations take precedence over his. “Skating is more important than surviving the business,” he says.

So far the plan seems to be working. In a year's time Jonathan jumped from 10th place in his age group in the national short-track speed-skating competition to second overall in the nationals in March as a member of the Virginia Speedskating Club. And Heo's new business just opened. He proudly hands out freshly minted business cards with a futuristic-looking race car. He has a catchy name for his collision and auto repair shop: Olympic Auto Center. 

 

As Olympic communes go, the training facility and athletic campus that Burton and his partners are building is so big, so expansive, that it's difficult to comprehend. There are even plans to bring in professional sports teams, such as minor-league hockey and basketball franchises. Burton says he's even met with the developers proposing to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. If that deal falls through, why not build it in Chesterfield? There's plenty of room, Burton says, and his facility has quick access to both Powhite Parkway and state Route 288. 

Starting this summer, construction of the facility's first phase will begin, with an emphasis on the indoor aquatics center, the skating rink and the cycling track — which includes a high-speed velodrome, a track with high-arching walls — and will continue during the next three to five years.

Cycling is one of the project's key elements and illustrates the market potential, says Burton, who recently restarted a weekly cycling series at Southside Speedway dubbed Go Fast, Turn Left. Only about a dozen or so cyclists show up for a recent Tuesday night session, but the air is abuzz about the new facility Burton's building, which is just beyond the woods behind the 50-year-old NASCAR track. The key features will be the valedrome attached to a mile-long criterium track that likely will draw thousands of cycling enthusiasts to the area. One of them is Kelvin Owen, who's been racing for 20 years. “It's fantastic training,” Owen says after a series of sprints around Southside Speedway's one-third-of-a-mile race track. “You don't push yourself this hard by yourself.”

The cycling courses will be among the first complete at the facility, Burton says, and could open as early as this fall.

All told, after the 250-acre, $175 million campus is finished there will be an indoor ice-skating arena, an indoor Olympic aquatics center, a 5,000-seat arena for all kinds of sporting events and concerts, a sports medicine clinic and rehab center, a family entertainment center, an outdoor and indoor tennis multiplex, a hotel and retail shops. There will also be an additional 30 outdoor fields and two indoor fields for lacrosse, rugby, volleyball, soccer, field hockey and football, among other sports. There will also be a miniature NASCAR go-cart track (they go about 45 mph).

In addition to the fitness center, Burton says the tournament complex will offer a one-stop shop of sorts for national invitational tournaments and events that sometimes spread out over weeks. Tournament organizers must often coordinate events at several different venues, but the 250-acre complex will offer everything anyone could possibly need in one place. And did he mention there's a hotel?

Burton knows the idea seems too big, maybe too dreamy. Building something this ambitious during the worst economy in 75 years might even seem naA_ve. But Burton has the pedigree and financial wherewithal. He's been a venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur for more than 20 years, and has dabbled in computer programming since the 1970s. He earned a degree in psychology and sociology at the College of William and Mary in 1974 and picked up his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1986.

After graduating from high school, Burton, a native of Decatur, Ala., says he planned to earn a degree in urban planning. He wanted to be a city planner, but while in school was drawn to sociology and psychology.

After graduating from William & Mary in 1978, he took a job as a clinical technician at a psychiatric hospital in Portsmouth and saw an opportunity to meld his computer skills with his psychology training. Instead of having lab technicians manually monitor the sleeping patterns of patients, Burton built a computer program that did the work and digitized the results, spawning his first business venture. The business was a huge success, and by the mid-1990s had racked up $80 million in sales, launching a career of sorts as an angel investor.

“I started investing in early stage companies,” Burton says, adding that he became more hands-on with his investments, often running them. In the mid-1990s, for example, he created a heart-monitoring device called HearTalker, which straps to the chest and, through headphones, acts as a digital personal trainer that lets the wearer know when he or she has reached the ideal heart rate.

HearTalker got Burton into the physical fitness industry, and it wasn't long before Burton's neighbor, a recreational hockey player, told him about an ice rink in Richmond that was for sale. The company that owned the rink had gone bankrupt. Burton and his neighbor, Brad Robinson, and another partner bought the Richmond Ice Zone in 2001, and later picked up another rink in Short Pump, SkateNation.

“We used the ice rinks as a template for how to do sports training,” Burton says. After a couple of years, Burton's speed skating club caught the attention of U.S. Speedskating, the sport's governing body. Burton, like he did with his companies, decided to take a hands-on approach to learn the sports-training business, becoming chairman of U.S. Speedskating's development committee in 2005, which allowed him to study facilities and training methodologies of other teams across the country. It also allowed him to tap into the sport's premier athletes and coaches. 

“Steve is looking at providing a focus for speed skating, bringing in top coaches and bringing in top skaters and being a real strong breeding ground for future Olympic skaters,” says Bob Crowley, executive director of U.S. Speedskating in Kearns, Utah. The new Olympic campus near Brandermill, Crowley says, has the potential to become one of the premier training facilities on the East Coast.

“The complex he has presented to us is phenomenal,” he says.

The next question is whether it works financially. While he won't release specifics, Burton says a “substantial private investment” from he and his partners will anchor the $175 million development. As for the business model, Burton says the concept is simple: His company, SportsQuest — hence the name of the campus, “Q” — will lure the best trainers and athletes, many of whom will live on campus. And in exchange for access to the facility's resources, the athletes and coaches put in time training and working with budding athletes — the paying members. When finished, Burton anticipates the campus will house about 250 of the world's top athletes.

 

He's been testing the system for a few years now, so much so that his large house in Woodlake has become a de facto headquarters for top-notch speed skaters — he's had as many as 18 sleeping over during summer camps and tournaments — such as Alex Hopp and Sonia Milan. Hopp, a 19-year-old from Houston, bounced around from Milwaukee to Denver before landing on Burton's couch in January. While it isn't likely that Hopp will make the Olympic team — he's simply trying to hone his skills for future competitions — the 22-year-old Milan has a legitimate shot at representing Team USA in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Milan is one of 16 athletes in the United States selected to try out for the Olympic speed-skating team in September. Her story is one of redemption, she hopes. A bubbly brunette who started skating at age 8, she was gashed in the leg during the 2006 Olympic trials when she fell and was stepped on by another skater. Not long after making the U.S. world team in 2007, where she won a bronze medal, Milan broke her back in a freak accident on the ice. She stumbled on a turn and her vertebrae snapped. 

Doctors told her she would never race again.

“Just the luck of the draw,” she says. “I had just made the national team. The track was tore up and I lost my footing.” After more than nine months of rehab, she made her way to Richmond in September, reuniting with her old coach, Scott Koons, a former Olympian and Virginia Speedskating coach.

She knows this is her last realistic shot at making the Olympics, and she wears a helmet with the word “hope” painted across the top.

“It would be a miracle,” she says if she makes the team.

Or a dream come true. S

Correction: Steve Burton graduated from The College of William & Mary in 1978.

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