- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

On a gym floor inside a humble brick building across from a car dealership in Bethesda, the future of the NBA and NFL is being shaped.

Lanky college stars in need of more bulk are being tested. Agile point guards are learning how to be quicker off the dribble.

And Shawn Vass and Vernon Boyd, two well-cut former college athletes, are barking instructions and recording progress during nearly two straight hours of intense drills.

This is not a typical gym. It’s Xtreme Acceleration, a fitness center specializing in speed and agility training for athletes looking to make it at the college or professional level.

“This is totally different,” said Boyd, 35, and a former track standout at the University of Maryland. “We’re not fitness. We’re sports performance. We want people to be able to play every game and extend their careers.”

On this day Boyd and Vass, also 35 and a former football player and All-American sprinter at George Mason, are working with about a half-dozen pro and college basketball players. Receiving special attention is Akin Akingbala, a former Clemson forward looking to get himself in shape for the NBA Draft.

“His agent said, ‘Come in and train,’ and we took care of everything else,” Vass said. “He’s an outstanding athlete, but when you make him perfect … wow.”

Akingbala is 6-foot-9, a potential NBA swingman who is aware of his need to improve his endurance and strength to thrive in a season of 82 games. On this day, he’s going head-to-head in a series of drills with Harding Nana, an all-Colonial Athletic Conference forward from Delaware, also vying to be picked up by an NBA team.

“The competition is really serious,” said Akingbala, who worked out with the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics last week. “You’ve got guys from high school who are ready for the league right now, just teenagers. No matter where you are, you have to realize there’s a lot of people ahead of you and a lot of people behind you looking to get ahead of you.”

Indeed, even high schoolers are working to get an edge in their performance. One of the regulars at Xtreme Acceleration is Nolan Smith, an Upper Marlboro resident and guard at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia who has committed to play at Duke in 2007.

“It’s a business now, and that’s why I’m here every day at 3 o’clock,” said Smith, who traveled to San Antonio this week for tryouts for the under-18 National team. (He qualified as a finalist.) “They’re helping me get quicker and stronger. They get you right.”

Workouts are specially tailored for each athlete but also involve group sessions featuring competitive basketball and sprinting drills. Boyd and Vass often use unique equipment such as bungee cords and ropes, while also incorporating weightlifting. The gym has a basketball court with official NBA floor and glass backboards, a turf field and high-end Keiser weight equipment. Even the treadmills have their own television screens with DirecTV hookups.

Boyd and Vass insist that workouts be tailored with the heart rate in mind in order to achieve the maximum benefit.

“We view the heart as the biggest, most crucial muscle in the body,” Boyd said. “If you get that right, everything takes care of itself.”

Before each workout, athletes are hooked through a series of sensors to a computer system known as OmegaWave. The system then records the body’s electrical activity and collects a host of information about the body, including heart rate and the body’s readiness for a workout. Several top athletes, including Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling and members of the AC Milan soccer team use the system, and the Duke basketball team has also purchased one.

It was not always this way for Boyd and Vass. About six years ago, the two were working at the Supreme Court, Boyd as a police officer and Vass as an aide to Justice John Paul Stevens.

“We pretty much got bored and said, ‘You know what, we need something more to fulfill our lives with,’” Boyd said. “I approached Shawn and said, ‘I want to start training athletes.’ We started from zero.”

Boyd and Vass began offering free personal training sessions with athletes at Sligo Creek Park. Eventually, they became certified in strength and agility training and learned their craft from Brent MacFarlane, the head coach of the 2000 Canadian Track and Field Team. The two men opened Xtreme Acceleration last fall, and have worked as strength and agility coaches at the NBA Players Association top 100 camp for high schoolers. They also work with teenagers and older adults who are looking to get back into the shape of their high school or college days.

The two plan to open a new facility in Miami, closer to where more top athletes reside. The new gym would be attached to residences, allowing athletes to stay there and work out whenever they wanted.

To some, it may seem excessive. But to those on the cusp of NBA success, it’s all about getting any edge they can find.

“Everybody’s working hard, everybody’s training hard,” Akingbala said. “I’m able to work out for longer periods of time now. There are a lot of players out here. I’ve been working out with a few teams and I think they’re pretty impressed. And it’s all because of this gym.”

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