Of the 133,611 people in Gainesville, the college students and university employees and their families stand out. But there is one small group that seemingly hides in the shadows.
Gainesville is home to many professional athletes who stay in town for first-class training facilities and coaching talent.
Joseph Fahnbulleh, 21, a professional track and field athlete, said he trains with the University of Florida men’s and women’s track and field head coach, Mike Holloway, who was the Tokyo Olympics U.S. Track & Field Head Coach.
“Obviously, having such an experienced coach can explain why an athlete would want to train here,” he said.
Fahnbulleh attended the University of Florida and runs the 200-meter dash. He does not compete for a specific professional team, but he recently signed his first professional contract with ASICS, a worldwide activewear brand.
He said having top-level coaches isn’t the only factor that contributed to his decision to live in Gainesville.
“Gainesville provides the perfect climate environment for track athletes,” Fahnbulleh said. “We like to be pushed because of the heat, we like to have to struggle to breathe due to the high humidity levels and we like to have to adjust to the wet slippery ground every once in a while.”
Professional female track and field athlete, Anna Hall, 21, agrees with Fahnbulleh about Gainesville providing a natural environment that makes training challenging and contributes to making her better each day.
Hall used to compete for the Gators last season before she made what she considers to be an easy decision to go professional since she was able to stay in Gainesville and train.
“I knew that I would train here and still be close to my college friends and the Gainesville community,” Hall said.
Fahnbulleh and Hall said they have Gainesville hotspots that they were not ready to leave.
“I am in love with Chipotle,” Fahnbulleh said. “But the one at University is different.”
He said when he walks in there most afternoons, he feels like the employees are expecting him. Fahnbulleh said he sees other regulars he has met from the Gainesville community.
“If a fan is looking for me, go to the Chipotle on University around 3:20 p.m. each weekday,” Fahnbulleh said. “I am always looking to meet other Chipotle lovers and fans.”
Hall said she likes to hang out at Opus Coffee in the Innovation District of Gainesville.
She said that she goes there to do homework, hang out with friends and get an iced cold coffee.
“I love that you can sit and chill like you are at home. I always meet new people, and the friendly staff always puts a smile on my face,” Hall said.
She said she goes at least three times a week and in the mid-morning.
While she has no complaints about Gainesville as a training hub, one thing that bugs her is not having access to an international airport.
Unless her destination is Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte or Miami, she is forced to take connecting flights.
“Unfortunately, this could be one thing that pushes other professional athletes away from training in Gainesville,” Hall said.
Fahnbulleh and Hall both said the weather provides a good training environment, the coaches are qualified and Gainesville has amenities that make them happy.
Nic Peterson, one of Hall’s coaches, said he smiled from ear to ear when she told him she wanted to continue her professional training in Gainesville.
“I am so happy that Anna decided to stay here because this is her family, and Gainesville is her home,” Peterson said. “This is why I think most professional athletes that are Gators decide to stay here.”
Peterson said it shocks him when athletes across the association go professional and decide not to stay in Gainesville because he believes the coaching is incredible, the facilities are great and the community is welcoming to all.
Peterson said he is starting to see more and more professional athletes around town.
Fahnbulleh said he is not yet close with any other professional athletes in Gainesville besides those in track and field.
All the elite athletes around town do not always get the chance to meet each other.
“Honestly, I did not realize how many professional athletes are still in Gainesville,” he said. “It has never been a topic people talk to me about.”
Fahnbulleh said, and Hall agreed, they know other professional athletes, but not all of them. They look forward to meeting them and working with them to contribute to the community.
“Besides my boyfriend, Ben Shelton, and the other professional track athletes that I train with, I do not personally know a lot of other professional athletes in Gainesville,” Hall said.
Ben Shelton, 20, a professional tennis player, said Gainesville holds a special spot in his heart.
Shelton moved to Gainesville when he was 10 years old and hasn’t left since. He attended the University of Florida for two years and competed with the men’s tennis team. After two successful seasons, he decided to compete professionally but continues to live and train in Gainesville.
“I love this community and I love the coaches and the people I surround myself with here,” Shelton said. “My sister competes on Florida’s women’s tennis team, and my dad is the head coach for the men’s.”
He said wouldn’t consider training anywhere else since everything he needs is here.
Sherridon Dressel, a professional swimmer for the California Condors, said she decided to train in Gainesville after her college career because of the relationships she had built.
“It was the best decision for me,” Dressel said. “And I was confident that my coaches, friends and the community would back me.”
She said Gainesville has become her home. The coaches and facilities are also unmatchable.
Dressel said she loves when she can find places to relax around Gainesville to destress after long days of practice and other stressors.
Dressel said she loves walking near Lake Alice because it is calm and quiet. She also has recently become a YogaPod-sponsored athlete for a yoga studio in Gainesville. Yoga gives Dressel a lot of time to think.
Like Fahnbulleh and Hall, Dressel said that she thinks the humidity is a big reason why professional swimmers choose to train in Gainesville.
The moisture in the air helps clear the chlorine from a swimmer’s chest and throat. In cold environments, it is more difficult to breathe.
Dressel said she loves living in a small town. She loves her spots around town and feels like she has made personal connections with all the local cafe employees.
She could not give a definite hotspot for fans, but she said to keep eyes open at local cafes.
Peterson said he does not think Gainesville residents are aware of the professional athletes roaming the city.
“I see professional track athletes, swimmers, tennis players, and golfers training in Gainesville,” he said. “I hope more people notice that Gainesville is filled with great athletes and take advantage of them being here.”