20 years and going strong: The evolution of Sanford POWER

By: Paul Heinert .

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The foundation of a unique program that would transform people of all ages and abilities into better athletes began in a small workout room 20 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 — one that would differentiate itself from others in town. The result was the Sioux Valley High Performance Program, now called Sanford POWER. It would combine 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 POWER) 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. Twenty years later, he keeps coming back for more at least four times a week.

“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 POWER 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 POWER 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 College (now 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 utilize the space from morning until night.

Sanford POWER 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 POWER 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.

“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 (Lloyd) job is to train me.”

Expanding north

Sanford POWER has also expanded beyond South Dakota. Fargo and Bismarck now have facilities in North Dakota where athletes are getting better, thanks to the program.

The Fargo POWER Center operates in a multi-purpose bubble not far from the new Sanford Fargo Medical Center. It’s home to a hockey treadmill and recently added a full-time basketball academy.

Sanford POWER set up a full-time program in Bismarck-Mandan in 2015, bringing veteran coach Mike Salwei into the fold. Just two years later, POWER moved into a newer, larger facility in order to handle the volume of business. The venue kicked off with an appearance by professional quarterback Carson Wentz, one of many professional athletes to endorse and use the Sanford POWER program. Others include hockey legend Matt Cullen and pro golfer Amy Olson.

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.