Across the pond: A visit to Nike WHQ, Portland USA

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Words: Alex Synamatix

There is a near mythical moment that a lot of us dream about. An opportunity that will find itself on the wish list of almost every self confessed Nike fan who dares to dream. So, when an unexpected phone call came, asking us to hop over the pond to go and check out the Nike World Head Quarters in Beaverton, Portland, there was only one answer; a simple, but effective “Yes please”.

Up until recently, we had only ever heard whisperings of how people are treated when on “Nike time”, whisperings and murmurs from some of the very select few who have managed to receive that golden ticket to Portland themselves in the past, but it still remained shrouded in mystery. It’s one of those things that no matter how many times you are told it by others, you will never truly believe it until it happens to you personally. This was the invitation into the inner sanctum. The secret society. A peak behind that luxurious velvet curtain. As the organisational emails started trickling in, we started to really get a grasp of the scale of the company, with emails arriving from the Nike Travel department that included a to-the-minute travel schedule – a department that we had no prior knowledge even existed. This was starting to live up to that exciting childhood vision already.

Shouts to Air France for misplacing our luggage, containing our only camera. Huge thanks to Dave who followed us around taking photos on our behalf as a lifesaver.

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Jump forward past a couple of flights and roughly 13 hours of travel time and we were touching down in Portland, Oregan. With our past knowledge of this place only ever being referenced on a Nike Sportswear vintage styled t-shirt or hoody, it was mildly surreal being in the actual city. It’s surreal enough going from our over-crowded London, that looks as though some crazed genius has put it together with a scatty “put that there and that there and squeeze that in there wherever it fits” kind of mentality, to the almost confusing organisation of America’s grid system cities, where everything is neatly squared off and they have enough space for their roads to be as wide as at least two of ours. The cab driver had his own theory that our tiny roads where the main reason that we all drive “tiny little cars” over here, and by little cars he was referring to any and all hatchbacks. A truly American insight that was rather tickling as our first decent bit of conversation since landing in the States.

Once settled into the hotel and having had a brief stroll around central Portland to acclimatise, it was time to hit the sack in preparation for the task ahead and the reason behind this whole journey – the tour of Nike WHQ Campus and an opportunity to put their newly launched Nike+ Kinect technology to the test.

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Our prior knowledge of the Nike WHQ was essentially built upon stories and rumors. We hadn’t seen it, we hadn’t visited it and we hadn’t really spoken to many people about it at great length before, especially people who had witnessed it first hand, so there was a strange excitement in the morning on our way to the campus. Would it live up to expectations? Would it surpass them? What the hell will we see? I guess the only logical comparison for this part of the experience would be to draw upon that moment where the lucky few golden ticket holders wait with baited breath before being allowed to enter Willy Wonker’s elusive chocolate factory.

As we pulled into the long driveway and made our way up to the first building, it became clear that the name ‘Campus’ was very apt. It felt like we were entering some form of elite university or even at a push the main hub of some strange American religious cult. Even the warming, open nature of all of the staff who welcomed us encouraged these notions. Through the entrance and we had little time to soak up the atmosphere before being ushered into a dark auditorium for our welcome speech. An ice cool blue light draped over a selection of white leather sofas arranged on an empty stage, making for a relaxed yet surreal environment, strengthened by the eerily empty auditorium surrounding them. We’re quite accustomed to Nike presentations, but for some reason the smaller than normal audience and the fact that we were actually at Nike made this one feel a little special to say the least. There was something almost NASA-esc about this environment. A swift briefing from some Nike executives including Stefan Olander, the VP of Digital Sport, and we were ready for our tour.

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I really cannot stress how large this campus is. I will try my best to portray the feeling of endlessness as best I can, but I don’t think I will ever be able to do it justice. To put it into perspective, there is a man made lake casually residing at the center of the campus. Starting to get an idea? First things first; a historical tour through some key catalogues and moments from Nike’s past, on display in large scale. It’s a logical start and made sure that those who were less geeky on the topic were up to scratch before we went any further. Some essential reading if you will. It also managed to reveal some previously unknown gems of knowledge to the more nerdy few of us as well.

To be honest, we could have continued browsing the catalogues all day, stretching as far back as 1970, it was a gold mine of information. There were some incredible forgotten silhouettes on show, including the Equator, Internationalist, Equinox and Transit. As well as the early Nike catalogues, there was also a surprising amount of Blue Ribbon Sports catalogues on display with equal pride – the Onitsuka Tiger distribution company that birthed Nike in 1971. As part of this birth period, the original waffle iron used by Bill Bowerman to create the prototype sole unit for the 1972  Nike Moon Shoe (and later the Waffle Racer etc.) was displayed proudly in a glass cabinet. It was a little worse for wear however, having spent a large chunk of it’s later life buried in the back yard. This really was a gold mine for any Nike nerd and we were only in the first building of the tour.

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Stepping out and onwards, we found ourselves being marched past the Michael Jordan building, as if to tease us for what was to come later on. A large majority of the buildings and facilities at the WHQ Campus are named after famous Nike athletes, including the next stop on the tour, which was without a doubt one of the most impressive. Being lead behind a building and onto a brick path surrounded by woodlands would usually start to ring alarm bells, but we were in such a state of awe that the only thing you could do was to try and take it all in. Blink and you would miss something.

Down the path and out of site of the main Campus, the woodland opened up to reveal a cast iron statue of Michael Johnson and his golden shoes, welcoming us to what has been called the “track amongst the trees”. A full Olympic sized running track cut into the woodlands, making for the most incredibly beautiful sporting environment and something that looked straight out of an overly epic American advert. On the track stood legendary marathon runner and coach to Mo Farah, Alberto Salazar – we were perfectly in time to interrupt the start of his training session with Mo’s training partner Galen Rupp. In an attempt not to spoil their focus, we moved on to the next stop in the tour.

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Next up we found ourselves in the Nike Fitness Center, where Nike house their technical training facilities for staff and athletes alike. Here we met Nike’s fitness guru and ex-fitness coach to Newcastle United, Paul Winsper. Paul kindly ran us through the full set of physical analysis tests that Nike put their pro athletes through on arrival at the Campus. Using Megan Rapinoe as a test model (midfielder for the Seattle Sounders and United States women’s national soccer team), Paul explained how this series of precise tests had inspired the new Nike+ Kinect workout software and just how closely the software could replicate the test systems in turn.

This was also our first window into what exactly we would be put through ourselves later on in the day, and it brought on a strange concoction of excitement and fear as we gained an insight into our afternoon as well as being reminded that we are no where near this level of fitness. It would be interesting to see how these tests would translate to your average (lazy) consumer, such as ourselves.

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Out of the Fitness Center and on to a personal highlight of the tour; the Michael Jordan building. As we approached the entrance it became obvious who had a background in sneakers and who didn’t. I rapidly became a small child, eager to see some archive gems … and I wasn’t disappointed. Smack bang in the middle of the room was a healthy selection of Jordan shoes, all OGs of course. A nice modest display from the Jordan 1 all the way to the XVI, all signed by the man himself. It was a treasure trove to say the least.

Surrounding this display on all of the external walls were cases packed with memorabilia from key moments in Michael Jordan’s career, be it Space Jam or his initial signing contract with Nike, or even the letter from the NBA banning the Jordan 1 colourway. It was all there. If you like your Jordan’s, you would have struggled not to flip out in a big way.

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Enough about Jordan.

As much of an icon as he is, he’s no king amongst men here, but a king among other sporting kings such as Ronaldo (Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, not Cristiano), who has two full FA standard football pitches named after him at the Nike WHQ, as well as his own statue of course. There seems to a be a statue themed trend at Nike WHQ. It was in fact on these football pitches that they held the final trials for the USA Olympic shot put team, much to the groundskeeper’s irritation.

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After ambling past Ronaldo’s football pitches we found ourselves in a Japanese garden. You may think it odd that there’s a full Japanese garden on site, equipped with water feature, bridge and small bamboo forrest, but those with a near obsessive knowledge of Nike’s past won’t be. The garden was built to honor the Sojitz company (formerly Nissho Iwai), who were one of the earliest investors in Nike, over 40 years ago. Not only is it a nice gesture, but also a very calming environment for the likes of Tinker Hatfield to dream of future footwear innovations while overlooking Lake Nike.

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At this point of the day, we had seen all that Nike had planned for us to see. The tour had concluded and it was time to head back to the auditorium for a spot of lunch and a short pet talk from a few folk including Nike’s Senior Global Communications Director Charlie Brooks (a fellow Brit) about the new Nike+ Kinnect software. What was interesting was hearing Stefan Olander discuss the Kinect project, as he has overseen the entirety of the Nike+ project’s development and been a driving force in Nike’s new digital future. You’ll never hear a more enthusiastic man discussing the positive effects of Nike Fuel on your life, mainly through the changes in mentality.

Once briefed and amply inspired we made our way to the changing rooms and got kitted up, ready to take on the world, or at least the XBOX awaiting us in the gym …

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Paired up with our own personal trainers and given the much appreciated privacy of our own XBOX’s in personal booths for us to sweat and strain in, we began going through the same tests we had seen Megan Rapinoe performing earlier that morning. This strange series of tests enables the Kinect device to configure how flexible you are, how powerful you are, how stable you are and how fast you are, building a solid profile of your ability before planning your workout depending on how you want to use the software.

It may have only taken a few minutes of short exercises, but believe me when I say that by the time you get to the last task of lifted knee sprinting on the spot, you really don’t want to be doing them. We had been warned in advance by Paul that they would most likely not be enjoyable. It’s like any sport really; it’s rewarding in a strangely warped way.

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Once we had cleaned ourselves up, had a drink or two and got over the physical tests that had just taken place, we collected ourselves in the hallway to be greeted with some news that none of us had expected to hear … we were going into the Kitchen.

Now, before I go any further, let me just put this into context. The WHQ Campus has over 3,000 employees, of which roughly only 400 are allowed to enter the Innovation Kitchen. Inside the Innovation Kitchen you will find the heart of Nike; the Advanced Materials Research, the Nike Sports Research Lab and the Concept Creation Center. This is where the magic happens.

If you were ever fortunate enough to visit Cadbury’s World as a child on a school trip, it’s something similar to that sense of magical excitement. Now imagine being a small child in that situation obsessed with chocolate and specifically Cadbury’s chocolate and you’re getting close to what we felt at this moment in time. It’s that childish idea that right here, in this mythical Kitchen, this is where everything you love about Nike and a large chunk of what you love about sneakers, even sportswear as a whole, was created. Obviously it’s not that simple, but it’s fair to say that it’s where a lot of it is created conceptually.

Being the living, pumping heart of Nike, we were under strict rules that prevented us from taking any photos or sending out any kinds of communication for that matter while inside the Kitchen. A minor sacrifice for this privilege. All of our cameras and phones were bagged up into faceless brown paper bags before the large metal doors with their waffle iron cast glass windows were even opened. Straight away you are met with a world of sporting wonder – the hallway flooring is a 100m sprint track, the first room you encounter has a large sensor rigged section of basketball court as well as another 100m sprint track, an HD camera rigged section of football pitch and a temperature controlled room that allows the designers to test things in anything from Sahara to Arctic conditions. It’s quite literally a sportswear technology designer’s playground.

Right at the center of the Kitchen is the meeting room; an old school Winnebago that has been restored, had one side removed and a glass room extended out from it’s side. Glass that can be opaque or transparent at the flick of a switch. This Winnebago references the early years of Nike, the years when Phil Knight used to drive an old Winnebago from running meet to running meet, introducing new runners to Nike footwear. It was what they called “word of foot” marketing and signified the beginning of a long and very fruitful love between Nike and creative marketing. Very little else was explained or shown in regards to the Kitchen. It was hard to know which part you were in, what was going on or just how much we had seen, but it only took walking two steps through that initial door to satisfy all of our childhood dreams.

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After walking out of the Kitchen, we were filled with the realisation that a life goal had just been achieved. A strange combination of ecstasy and closure at the same time, sprinkled with a bit of disbelief to top it off. It was nothing that a decent shopping spree in the Nike Staff Store couldn’t help you deal with, of course. But that was the zenith, the peak of the mountain, the crest of the wave. From here on in we were on a steady track back down to reality and that ground zero point that we so fondly call Blighty.

Before we set off for home there were a few things that had to be ticked off the list, after all, the Kitchen isn’t the only thing that Portland has to offer. In fact Nike isn’t the be all and end all of Portland (don’t tell them that we said that though). Portland has a thing for meat, so an evening spent inside the cities first Salumeria was a logical end to the trip. There’s nothing quite like filling your chops with fine, locally sourced, hand prepared meats, be it salamis or sausages. The chocolate salami may have been a step too far however. With the evening in full swing, the rest of the trip started to take an upward motion in regards to speed and before we knew it we were back on an airplane, pointing the nose to London (not before stopping off at Barista to check out some of Portland’s finest coffee of course).

I know I’ve mentioned it more than a couple of times now, but this truly was a surreal experience. Whether that’s down to the short nature of the trip or the grand scale of the achievements and life goals that it held within, I’m not sure. It feels like being Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, if he had been put straight back into his normal life after a jam packed day with Willy Wonker and all his mad toys. There will always be a part of you that you leave behind at places such as this, another part of you that longs to return and another part that you gained as a result. For now, we have to be humbled by the opportunity and bask in the memories.

Thanks to the folks at Nike for the experience and especially to all those we met out there. Until next time …

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