25 years strong: The evolution of Sanford Sports Performance

How a weight room turned into a full athletic training program backed by science

25 years strong: The evolution of Sanford Sports Performance

The foundation of a unique program that would transform people of all ages and abilities into better athletes began in a small workout room 25 years ago in what was then called the Sioux Valley Wellness Center.

“We built it from scratch,” Steve Bliss said.

Ohio State. Miami (Florida). Nebraska. Bliss had run strength and conditioning programs for some of college football’s elite schools in the ’70s and ’80s. The athletes who set foot in the gyms Bliss helped build went on to win national championships when they set foot on the field.

But in 1998, Bliss and Wellness Center director Cal Hanson were tasked with starting a complete training program for athletes in Sioux Falls, South Dakota — one that would differentiate itself from others in town.

The result was the Sioux Valley High Performance Program, which became Sanford POWER. In 2022, it became Sanford Sports Performance. It operates under the Sanford Sports brand along with the Sanford Sports Academy and Sanford Sports Complex.

Sanford Sports Performance combines strength and conditioning with agility and plyometrics — all scientifically supported by the principles of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

“We weren’t just a treadmill program or a weight-lifting program,” Bliss said. “When you came to do our program, you got the complete package.”

It was something no one else in the region was doing. And it did not take long for people around Sioux Falls to notice.

Steve Larsen, a Wellness Center member, was one of the first athletes to tap into the power of the program.

“I was doing some circuit training, but when (Sanford Sports Performance) started, I noticed there was a different scheme in terms of intensity and training,” he said.

Larsen was part of a small group that signed up together for 12 weeks of the program with a certified trainer.

“It’s been really fun to see the growth. I know a lot of people have benefited from the program. I know I have,” Larsen said.

Bliss along with Jeff Blindauer and Steph Kelley made up the original Sanford Sports Performance staff.

“And we were busy,” Bliss said.

Training ground

From 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. every weekday, the Wellness Center quickly turned into a training ground for anyone looking to get an edge. More staff was needed, and Brad Rilling and Jim Lloyd joined the team.

Sanford Sports Performance soon outgrew the walls of the Wellness Center and added new buildings and opportunities for athletes to get involved. The staff took the program on the road and trained athletes at local schools starting with Sioux Falls Lincoln, Sioux Falls Roosevelt, Augustana University and the University of Sioux Falls.

More growth followed. The staff designed the Sanford Bubble, which sits next to the football field on the University of Sioux Falls Sports Complex. This unique space had three training surfaces: turf, wood and sand. Athletes were able to do speed work, strength development, plyometrics, core development and agility all in one area.

Sanford Health sold the building to USF years later, and the school’s athletes still use the space from morning until night.

Sanford Sports Performance moved to a new, bigger home when the Sanford Fieldhouse opened in 2012 in northwest Sioux Falls. The 85,000-square-foot building on the Sanford Sports Complex sees thousands of athletes from all sports come through its doors each year.

Scott Hettenbach, who led strength and conditioning for the University of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team for 19 seasons, has been overseeing Sanford Sports Performance in Sioux Falls since 2013.

“Now when I look at what Scott’s doing — the relationships he has developed — it’s some really special stuff,” Bliss said.

Larsen values his relationship with senior strength and conditioning coach Jim Lloyd.

“They should feel very fortunate to have the facility and trainers that are out there. The facility is one thing, but the trainers are the most important,” Larsen said. “I don’t have to think when I get there. I just have to show up, and Jim’s job is to train me.”

Expanding north

Sanford Sports Performance has also expanded beyond South Dakota. It includes a location at the new Fargo Parks Sports Center, a 390,000-square-foot hub for recreational and community activities that serves as home to Fargo Parks and opened in the spring of 2024.

Sanford Sports Performance also set up a full-time program in Bismarck-Mandan in 2015, bringing veteran coach Mike Salwei into the fold. Just two years later, Sanford Sports Performance moved into a newer, larger facility to handle the volume of business.

Sanford Sports Performance now has additional locations in Grand Forks, North Dakota and Bemidji, Minnesota, with satellite locations in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and Dickinson and Watford, North Dakota.

The Bismarck venue kicked off with an appearance by professional quarterback Carson Wentz, one of many prominent athletes to endorse and use the Sanford Sports Performance program over the years.

It’s a list that originally included longtime NHL player Matt Cullen and pro golfer Amy Olson and since then has grown to include C.J. Ham (NFL), Bernhard Langer (golf), Laura Roesler (track and field), Chris Streveler (NFL), Kim Kaufman (golf), Chad Greenway (NFL), Darrius Shepherd (NFL) and Dale Moss (NFL).

But it’s not just athletes using the program. Strength and conditioning coaches have also trained firefighters, police officers and Army National Guard soldiers.

“It’s an honor for me to be part of a program that’s going so strong and be able to see all the sports impacted,” Bliss said.

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Posted In Company News, Sanford Sports, Sports Medicine