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Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

Posted August 13, 2008 3:00 PM by ShakespeareTheEngineer

Steve Czaban, a nationally-syndicated sports radio personality, claims that it is impossible to classify Olympic swimming god Michael Phelps in the same category as Tiger Woods when it comes to the caliber of champion because the physics behind swimming is so "less sophisticated" than golf.

Someone should have told that to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) fluid mechanics professor Timothy Wei. Professor Wei has been working with USA Swimming for the last five years, analyzing water flow around swimmers. In short, Wei's work has been revolutionary. According to the Albany Times-Union, USA Swimming Coach Sean Hutchison said the project "gave me the foundation for which every technical stroke change in preparation for the Beijing Olympics was based."

Wei's work involved modifying and combining force measurement tools originally developed for aerospace with digital particle image velocimetry, a video-based flow measurement based technique. It gives US swimmers real-time feedback while they compete. Adjustments can be made between prelims, semis, and finals to maximize the energy that they exert, and by pinpointing the path of water around their bodies.

Digital particle image velocimetry allowed Hutchinson to analyze the techniques of his swimmers, determine which was the best, and then modify the rest of his stable to mimic the best technique - using hard data as a basis. Hard data is something that has been lacking in science of swimming. He credits Wei's work with Margaret Hoelzer's world record in the 200-m backstroke in July.

Up next for Wei: 2010 Vancouver Olympic Gold for the US Skeleton team.

Michael Phelps is already the most decorated Olympian in the history of the modern games. Is it fathomable, or even scary, to believe that he could get that much better though continual use and development of this technology? Or will the rest of the world, especially France (whose trash-talking relay team was humiliated into silence in the 4 x 100-m Relay) jump on board with Wei's work and again try to bridge the gap by 2012?

Resources:

http://timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=711433&category=REGIONOTHER

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#1

Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/14/2008 11:59 AM

Does anyone else think that France got what they deserved after the "We are going to smash the Americans!" comment?

I wasn't really pumped up at all to watch that relay until I heard that and then I was almost jumping up and down on my couch.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/14/2008 5:42 PM

YES! I was also slightly lax about the whole thing, still interested, just not passionate.... that is until the trash talk.

During the relay, you would have thought they were all my kids out there... screaming... and during the last leg when the gap started to close it became contagious... everyone of my house guests were on their feet screaming... you would have thought that the Cleveland Browns, Indians, and Cavs each won their titles in that moment.

It was totally cool the way the emotion just took over.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/14/2008 7:27 PM

Agreed, has to be one of my top favorite moments in sports history. Just to close the gap and make the last stretch to tap the wall first, wow,..take that Frenchies!!!!!!!

The rest of the world, after getting spanked so badly will definitely be working on getting up to speed (pun not necessarily intended) with swimming technology, they would be stupid not to.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/14/2008 10:01 PM

As much as it is technology, we can't forget the men behind it. They work vigorously and hard (not to say the others don't). Without a hard workout, technology wouldn't do a thing. These guys are in great shape, that is also a factor. You can't give a hefty person this technology and expect them to make it over the finish line first (unless it was at the bottom of the pool - ). It is the same concept of giving some person who hates to cook a cookbook.

Technology is only as good as the quality of the person using it (quality can be mental or physical). In this case a good combination of man and technology won the gold.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/18/2008 8:00 AM

JavaHead,

Totally agree. I can't remember doing a fist pump in the living room like that in a long time. Personally, I'd like to thank Alan Bernard (the French trash talker) and Ian Thorpe for taking this from a mild interest to a "stop what I am doing to watch" event.

Being a former track athlete and coach, I usually am most interested in those events. This year, however, has truly been all about Phelps and his sick accomplishments.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/15/2008 6:20 AM

Being a "sports radio personality" is not in the same caliber as being an athlete. The intellect behind being a commentator is less sophisticated than that which drives champion athletes. Mr. Czaban should excercise his right to not expose himself as a fool. To compare competition swimming with golf (BTW, can that actually be called a "sport"?) is like comparing bananas to pineapples.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/18/2008 8:06 AM

I usually like what Czaban and the other members of his team (Scott Linn and Al Galdi) have to say, but sometimes I think in his drive to have a unique take, he just misses the mark.

He is also admittedly biased towards golf as that his is own passion. I'd probably argue that rugby is more technical than swimming, too. If you ever saw me in a pool, you'd see based on what I know about each sport, from my perspective, it makes sense.

All that being said, I think it is safe to say that Phelps's abilities and skills are just so ridiculously far and away better than the rest of the world that he is just a freak of nature. It has been great to watch him progress from potential to reality as the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/18/2008 10:21 AM

I've thought since first seeing him swim that he should be checked for gills and scales... Maybe he's from the dolphin branch of the Homo sapiens tree?

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/18/2008 11:13 AM

Someone suggested that his ears might be gills in that she thought they looked deformed.

I'd take deformed ears and 14 gold medals any day.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/15/2008 11:19 AM

Phelps is said to consume 17,000 calories a day and has what appears to be zero body fat. Put 5000 calories a day into Woods and He won't be able to swing a club in a months time. How about them physics. The suits may give him a couple hundredth's of a second advantage but that don't explain margins of 3 full seconds. I would class Phelps and Armstrong together as super athletes in there respective sports. Partly genetics mostly drive. It takes tremendous fortitude to maintain training levels so intense. Like the old commercial about what is Armstrong on; Answer: His bicycle for 8 hours a day seven days a week". Its the same with Phelps there are those detractors looking for any excuse or reason other than eight hours a day seven days a week in the pool plus untold hours in the weight room for his success. I for one stand in awe of the accomplishments of both.

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Re: Engineering an Olympic Beast – The Secret Weapon Behind USA Swimming

08/18/2008 7:57 AM

It's funny that you mention Armstrong, as Czaban also added him to his comparison when discussing Phelps's accomplishments as compared to Tiger Woods.

I will note that this morning (8/18/08) Czaban did say that there was no argument that Phelps was the greatest swimmer of all time and that Woods does not YET have that distinction, but he will when he records his 19th win at a major.

To be fair, Woods is said to be able to bench press well over 300 lbs and spends his fair share of time in the weight room and on the course practicing. He might not have the metabolism of Phelps, but he certainly is not John Daly, either.

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