Bradenton’s own internationally recognized athletic mecca.
By Hannah Wallace
Chances are you’ve heard of IMG Academies in Bradenton. You know that several world-famous tennis players have trained at Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy, and that IMG’s Leadbetter golf academy eventually grew to rival Bolletieri for the famous athletes it trained. And you’ve probably even seen an article or two about college football players going through some pre-draft training at IMG’s Performance Institute. This has long been my basic understanding of IMG. I wanted to think it was something of international significance, superstar athletes training in Bradenton. But it never generated that much excitement, which made me think, “Meh, maybe it isn’t really that big a deal.”
Trust me, people. It is a huge deal.
A couple weeks ago I interviewed IMG’s strength and conditioning czar for a short piece about getting in shape (look for it in our February issue). That led to a lunch invitation from IMG’s new PR head. (PR people do this from time to time to connect with media. I rarely take them up on the offer because I assume they’ve mistaken me for someone powerful, and I hate to see them disappointed.) But this seemed right up my alley.
I attended a Bolletieri soccer camp the summer after my freshman year at Bayshore High School, right across 34th Street from IMG. Soccer represented a new frontier for the tennis-centric academy back then, but I remember the fields were quite nice, and the facilities fancy. But I couldn’t have predicted what it would become in just 15 years.
Nowadays, it’s Hollywood. PR Guy Chris and I sat down for a quick lunch of Swedish meatballs in the clubhouse, as athletes of all ages came in and out. Something like 80 countries are represented in the student body (English language classes are among the many offerings). As we ate, Chris handled eight things at once like a blockbuster studio chief. He answered a call on his Blackberry—ESPN was on the campus today and the crew wanted to grab lunch before they left; the buffet was to be kept out for them.
We toured the campus by golf cart. It’s huge: soccer fields, baseball fields, golf courses, basketball and tennis courts, all of them pristine—not to mention countless indoor and outdoor training facilities, a private school, a brand-new Aveda spa, hotel-like rooms to rent and honest-to-god communities—plural—for students and their families. And even with all that expansion, everything feels organized, organic, well planned and executed, maintained eternally new. It’s Disney World. Frigging Lakewood Ranch West.
Our high school track team used to run past Bolletieri and around El Conquistador golf course. That El Con course is now part of IMG, the southern side of campus, which also extends west into what was once swamp and farmland. If you’ve driven down 53rd Avenue, you’ve no doubt noticed the area’s transformation.
I took it all in, mouth agape, wishing I’d worn different shoes so I could bail out of the moving golf cart and go sprinting through the rain, onto the immaculate soccer field, slide across the green green grass. But I kept my composure, sort of, even as we walked through the new golf training building, onto the patio overlooking the driving range, and Chris pointed to the nearest golfer working on her swing. “There’s Paula Creamer. You’ve heard of her, right?” “Yes! I was just playing her on our Tiger Woods Wii game!” Some thoughts I ought to keep to myself.
Basketball is IMG’s next big focus, and they’ll eventually restart a hockey program, too. In the next month, 11 MLS teams will come to town to hold joint preseason training. Where else can you train alongside the rest of your pro league? Maybe David Beckham would like to come over to my place and play on our Slip ‘n Slide.
Paula Creamer practices her approach for next year's
Kegtacular "Best Trick" Slip 'n Slide competition.
I’m told—and readily believe—there is nothing anywhere that rivals IMG for comprehensive quality (outside of major college campuses, which don’t necessarily maintain the same quality across this many sports). Mental, nutritional and even verbal skills are honed as seriously as the physical. The staff, like the facilities, are the best you can get. Thousands of wealthy, international athletes and families flock to Bradenton year in and year out, and yet IMG doesn’t quite feel like it’s part of the local identity. True, it doesn’t have the history or the accessibility of the arts scene, but we’re so proud of all of our local treasures—shouldn’t this be one of them? Is it already? Or have I been sniffing too many grass clippings?