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The US Swim Team's Secret Weapon, Science 180

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the but-not-chemistry dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "When American Swimmer Margaret Hoelzer goes for the gold tonight in the 200-meter backstroke, part of her success will be due to a new system developed by Tim Wei, a mechanical and aerospace engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, that uses fluid dynamics to study human movement allowing scientists and coaches to study how fast and hard a swimmer pushes the water as he moves through it. 'Wei uses a tracking technique called digital particle image velocimetry, commonly used to measure the flow of small particles around an airplane or small fish or crustaceans in water.' Wei filtered compressed air in a scuba tank through a porous hose to create bubbles about a tenth of a millimeter in diameter. When an athlete swims through a sheet of bubbles that rises from the pool floor, a camera captures their flow around the swimmer's body and the images show the direction and speed of the bubbles, which Wei then translates into the swimmer's thrust using software that he wrote."
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The US Swim Team's Secret Weapon, Science

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  • Sexism (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:13PM (#24621425) Homepage Journal
    From TFS:

    "When American Swimmer Margaret Hoelzer goes for the gold tonight in the 200-meter backstroke..."
    "...to study how fast and hard a swimmer pushes the water as he moves through it."

    I'm Margaret Hoelzer, you insensitive sexist swimsuit-designing clods!

    • Re:Sexism (Score:5, Funny)

      by DeadDecoy (877617) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:17PM (#24621481)
      Can you really fault them, most slashdotters have never seen a woman before.
      • Is it just me or do other people never see the first post?

        I can see this reply, but what's it replying to? No idea....

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by DeadDecoy (877617)
          First port got modded troll. I think, if the first few posts get modded down, they disappear from view. The purpose of this is to remove first-spammers. And ya, my reply seems kinda dumb outa context :P.
          O well, this will get modded off topic and we can move on with our lives.
        • by eln (21727)

          Maybe you have your comment threshold set too high? If you browse at +2, that might explain it. I browse at -1, and see everything (for better or worse).

        • by spineboy (22918) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:33PM (#24621697) Journal

          I dunno - if you've seen some of the female swimmers, then it's not hard to make that mistake.

          • by Abreu (173023)

            Exactly, you need only look at their muscles and hear their voices and you'll come to the conclusion that they are inyecting them with something, even if they pass the doping tests.

            Same with this american guy Phelps... He is either on some new drug or he's a bloody mutant! Gold medals and olympic records falling like flies!

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:22PM (#24622097)

          No, it's not just you.

          The original slashdot page layout and comment threading system was junk. It was obviously "designed" at 3:00 in the morning after a mushroom and hash party in Taco's dorm room. They would fix it, but nobody at slashdot understands how it works.

          The recent v2.0 slashdot page layout and comment threading system is also junk. It was obviously "designed" at 3:00 in the afternoon after a martini and coke lunch at an expensive steak house. They would fix it, but nobody at slashdot understands that it sucks.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Allow me to introduce you to the "Parent" button. It's what I use in order to bring up the post that someone replied to.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        As an RPI graduate, I can ASSURE you this researcher has never seen a woman before, either.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by halsver (885120)

      I'm allergic to /. memes you insensitive, cliche clod!

      *AHH-CHOO*

    • Re:Sexism (Score:5, Insightful)

      by rehtonAesoohC (954490) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:35PM (#24621721) Journal
      What you've referred to is called a misplaced modifier, and it occurs when the wrong noun or pronoun is referred to as the precursor to a verb.

      For instance, note the following sentence: "I walked down the street, saw a boy and a bike, and he was walking quickly." In this example, the sentence attempts to reference the boy, but actually references the bike. The original statement is grammatically correct.

      I'm an English teacher you insensitive clod!
    • by Anonymous Coward

      When American Swimmer Margaret Hoelzer goes for the gold tonight in the 200-meter backstroke..."
      "...to study how fast and hard a swimmer pushes the water as he moves through it.

      I caught that too, and wondered if they had just inadvertently disclosed a cheating scandal at the Olympics.

  • and the science of drugs. I kid, I kid.
  • by BitterOldGUy (1330491) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:22PM (#24621545)
    Swim coach Sean Hutchison, who put two athletes on the Olympic swim team, says that he used Wei's insights as the basis for every technical change he made with swimmers leading up to the Olympic trials and games this year.

    After doing something for years and years, changing the way you do something, whether it's a swimming stroke or tennis or golf swing, isn't done instantly. It takes quite a bit of concerted effort and attention to change it. I'd be really interested in how and what the coach does to get the swimmers to change.

    I've witnessed swimmers in college that have bad habits that they gained as youth and they can't seam to shake them.

    • by jaymzter (452402)

      Football (American) coaches at the University of Florida did something similar last year. Working with the university's Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Laboratory to analyze quarterback Tim Tebow's throwing motion. After adjustments were made to his throwing motion based on that work, he went on to be the first sophomore Heisman award winner, given to the nation's top/favorite/hyped player.

    • by Crispy Critters (226798) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:37PM (#24621737)
      That depends. I remember reading about Natalie Coughlin four years ago, and one of the coaches was describing how Natalie could take a suggestion and instantly integrate it into her swim style, even in a competition. I believe that ability was seen as unique.

      It is plausible that adaptability is one trait that helped the Olympic swimmers become Olympic swimmers in the first place. Certainly it would be interesting to hear more about it.

      • by Original Replica (908688) on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:33PM (#24622181) Journal
        I have to wonder if Olympic swimmers know their sport so well, as to be able to be consciously aware of all the tiny little adjustments that help make the difference. I know that the more cycling I do the more aware I am of my pedal cadence and how smooth (or not) my pedal stroke is. An Olympics swimmer spends so much time thinking about their swimming I should hope that they can consciously add finesse where novices like me have trouble not swallowing pool water every fourth stroke.
    • by ckthorp (1255134) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:40PM (#24621775)
      Have you watched the Olympic athletes who have competed in Dancing with the Stars? When it comes to taking direction and altering their physical performance in a short period of time, they're absolutely awe-inspiring. If you're an Olympic athlete, you better be able to quickly make major changes based on either computerized or human coaching instructions. It's like watching a professional actor rapidly portray a half dozen different personae.
    • After doing something for years and years, changing the way you do something, whether it's a swimming stroke or tennis or golf swing, isn't done instantly. It takes quite a bit of concerted effort and attention to change it. I'd be really interested in how and what the coach does to get the swimmers to change.

      Perhaps there's a coaching aspect to it but I think if someone stays at the top of their field for a long time, it says a lot about that person's abilities. I wonder if it's simply that the best swimme

      • by dbcad7 (771464) on Friday August 15, 2008 @07:09PM (#24622485)
        Pro golfers often take lessons almost as if they were beginners.. It's easy for a golfer to develop bad habits and relearning the proper techniques is what makes them good.. Most amateur golfers perhaps take lessons when first learning the game, and that's it.. If you learned the game, and played every day without any further instruction you would play fairly well, but if you retake lessons occasionally and play every day you will get so much better.
    • by Alomex (148003) on Friday August 15, 2008 @08:38PM (#24623183) Homepage

      I've witnessed swimmers in college that have bad habits that they gained as youth and they can't seam to shake them.

      About twenty years ago, famous golf swing coach Butch Harmon saw Tiger at a day camp for kids. At the end of the day he knew Tiger would be famous one day but not because of the way he hit the ball. It was because of the way he took direction and coaching advice. Butch said that over the years he had seen quite a few kids hit the ball better than Tiger, but none so eagerly seek advice and apply it on the field as Tiger did.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by stephanruby (542433)

      After doing something for years and years, changing the way you do something, whether it's a swimming stroke or tennis or golf swing, isn't done instantly. It takes quite a bit of concerted effort and attention to change it. I'd be really interested in how and what the coach does to get the swimmers to change.

      In golf, you optimize the golf clubs, in tennis -- it's the rackets, and in swimming -- it's the swimsuits/body-suits. That's how you create the illusion of athletic progress and inject a little bit of

  • Interpretation? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Duncan Blackthorne (1095849) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:22PM (#24621551)
    So if I'm reading this correctly, they essentially created a measuring system for how much power a swimmer is generating in the water, serving the equivalent purpose of the power meter [wikipedia.org] that is commonly used by cyclists?
    • Re:Interpretation? (Score:5, Informative)

      by BitterOldGUy (1330491) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:30PM (#24621657)
      Hydrodynamics comes into also. So it's not just power but also how well they move through the water. Efficiency.

      I have much more power than any of the girls, well most of them, on the US Team, but in the water, they'll blow my doors off because of better technique - the ability to apply their power in the water. That's the best I can do. It's been a while since I read my swim coaching stuff.

  • by Solandri (704621) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:24PM (#24621567)
    It's not just better technique and the new suit. The pool is also designed to reduce waves [npr.org] to help lower times. A lot of the wave dissipation features described in the article have been used in tow tanks (where we tow model ships to measure their drag) for decades.
    • by Anpheus (908711) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:45PM (#24621815)

      Don't buy into journalists and others grasping at straws here. They couldn't find anything different about the pool, so they start reaching for things that would be obvious to anyone who watched swimming four years ago or has ever seen a swimming event. Extra lanes? Common. Wave-dissipating buoy lines? Common. Extra depth? Eh, not so much, but I know my school's pool is more than 2 meters in depth and it's considered OK.

      I think what you're seeing is natural, both the sportsmen and women are better than ever, and the swimsuits are better than ever. Result: world records falling left and right.

      I'd like to see the NBC and other groups congratulate Phelps rather than talk about fluff stories like how it's such a fast pool. If it's so fast, and it's not that Phelps is simply the fastest swimmer, then, well, all the other swimmers should be racing for first rather than second.

    • by garcia (6573) on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:02PM (#24621971) Homepage

      Everyone has known about this for years and I'm not quite sure why it's suddenly news now. There are plenty of pools out there that have 10+ lanes (in college we had 10+ lanes and we swam in the deep end of the pool for SCY races). It really seems like most of the discussions about the reasons for the WRs falling are more or less just to fill the time that the announcers have between events.

      I realize that the general public doesn't understand how pools, suits, and training methods have evolved over the last 15 years but it's seriously not news worthy IMO. US Swimming is just trying to get people to pay attention to how cool swimming is so that they get the most out of the "Olympic Cycle". The "Olympic Cycle" is the phenomenon that occurs following every Olympic year where swim teams see a upswing in the number of youngsters trying out for swim teams because of all the coverage ("ohh, Mommy, I want to be Michael Phelps/Natalie Coughlin/Hall Jr/Krazelburg/Dolan/etc too!")

      Another flash in the pan caused by mass media dumbing everything down to a mostly unaware public. Move along.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by codemachine (245871)

        Yeah, the 10 lane thing isn't new, but this is the first Olympics in a 3m deep pool. The depth would definitely help reduce turbulence.

    • by MtViewGuy (197597)

      There was also one change that lowered times: nobody races in the lanes next to the pool walls. As such, this means lower turbulence in water for all those swimmers in the other lanes, resulting in much faster performances.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:25PM (#24621587)

    In this Washington Post article [washingtonpost.com]

  • The new shark skin suit is pretty impressive too...
    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2008/august/news_15012.html

    Now all we need is an Olympic event that uses internal combustion engines and we'd be set. :)
  • by rehtonAesoohC (954490) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:30PM (#24621665) Journal
    The US Swim Team's Secret Weapon: Michael Phelps.

    Though that's not very secret. Sort of like Victoria's.
    • by Xoltri (1052470) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:48PM (#24621849)
      OK we get it, he's good at swimming. Does there really need to be so many swimming events? Why don't they have 10 different softball events? You could have ones where everyone gets one arm tied behind their backs. Or one where they all have to run backwards. Another where they hop around the field with potato sacs on their legs. Or have a runner at each base and they have to do it relay style. It doesn't make any sense!

      It's event pollution. See: http://www.realmansolympics.com/ [realmansolympics.com]
      • See: http://www.realmansolympics.com/ [realmansolympics.com] [realmansolympics.com]

        The author of that website doesn't know what he's talking about. Cycling is one of the toughest sports out there, lycra or no lycra. It's very much a sport for real men.

      • by ThomasFlip (669988) on Friday August 15, 2008 @08:11PM (#24623013)
        Agreed. People need to stop gawking at how many medals he's winning. They represent winning events that vary little in terms of training and skill. Now if somebody won a gold in cycling and long distance running, THAT would be a real accomplishment.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by maxume (22995)

          I'm pretty sure that coming in fourth place in a single Olympic event is a real accomplishment.

  • Ha!! (Score:3, Funny)

    by IcyHando'Death (239387) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:39PM (#24621759)

    Screw science. Their weapon is Intelligent Design!

    • by Brad1138 (590148) *

      Intelligent Design

      I would like to point out that People who understand the real meaning of the Universe are very good swimmers as they are commonly swimming away from Pirates.

  • by iamghetto (450099) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:45PM (#24621825) Homepage

    Everyone is faster in the pool. I watched a race where even the 5th place finisher came in above the old world record time.

    Just read this: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/12/sports/olympics/12records.html?_r=1&oref=slogin [nytimes.com]

    Over above whatever the swimmers are using, the pool itself is engineered to create faster times. Everything from the lane dividers, to the wall of the pool, to the extra meter of depth are meant to dissipate turbulence in the water and increase times.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      i'm starting to hear reports, admittedly unconfirmed, that several in the USA team have been found consuming DHMO [dhmo.org] prior to competing - this substance is well known for temporarily improving athletic performance, though admittedly is difficult to detect using the current dope-tests.
      i wouldn't be surprised if this scandal hits the papers over the next few days.

    • by snowwrestler (896305) on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:33PM (#24622187)

      It is engineered to reduce turbulence but no more than other top-level pools around the world. Pools with 10 lanes, slop gutters to eat waves, and greater then 2m depth are not unheard of. Besides, while plenty of world records are being beaten at these Olympics, plenty were also beaten before the Olympics...in the last year or two many world records have gone down at other events. Before each race NBC puts up a listing of the current world record for that event. Take a look--many are dated 2006 or 2007; some date back a few more years, but none are very old.

      We happen to be in a period of dramatic change in swimming right now, and there are probably a number of reasons. If you want to point to just one, it is probably that there is a lot more money in the sport now. So Michael Phelps could afford, through endorsements and grants, to train at a full-time professional level since he was an early teen. This has huge implications for his technique, fitness, health, and mental toughness for competition.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, it's mostly due to the swimsuits they're wearing. All of the winners are wearing special suits that decrease drag as much as possible and also have rigid areas that reinforce the swimmer's form so that it doesn't degrade as the swimmer tires.

      Yeah, the spirit of the games is pretty much gone.

    • by MtViewGuy (197597)

      Essentially, we're borrowing a lot of formerly classified research into lowering the resistance of things moving through water (the basic physics involved came from research done to make ships go faster and to reduce the resistance of a submarine running underwater; I'm almost guessing that they borrowed the research done by the revolutionary USS Albacore, a submarine that resulted in a quantum leap forward in underwater speed).

    • by Roger W Moore (538166) on Friday August 15, 2008 @07:56PM (#24622907) Journal

      Everyone is faster in the pool.

      Yes, they probably didn't level it right and they are all getting a downhill advantage.

    • by Pseudonym (62607) on Friday August 15, 2008 @11:12PM (#24623885)

      Perhaps more to the point, it's not just US that uses science.

      (And yes, I speak from experience. I can't tell you exactly what I do for a living, but let's just say that next Olympics, Australia's rowers are going to have a distinct advantage.)

      • Hrmm ... do you work in bionics? Or maybe you specialize in miniturization of outboard engines?

  • by clragon (923326) on Friday August 15, 2008 @05:48PM (#24621851)

    I went to China for a visit this summer and there was this interesting Chinese Olympic history series playing on the TV.

    Apparently after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the Chinese considered it to be a disappointing showing because many Chinese favorites did not get a Gold medal. So the Chinese government got some experts together and they came up with a new plan for how the athletes are trained in China. They first listed several sports the Chinese were good at traditionally, like table tennis, badminton, gymnastics, etc. They then established two research facilities for each sport. The purpose of these research facilities were to find more effective methods to train an athlete.

    For example, the rowing team was sent to go train in Tibet because there it is at a high altitude. At high altitudes there is less oxygen so it trains the athletes' body to use oxygen more effectively.

    While us nerds can't exactly participate in sports competitively we definitely have the skills to improve training and playing methods of a sport =D

    • by garcia (6573) on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:14PM (#24622043) Homepage

      For example, the rowing team was sent to go train in Tibet because there it is at a high altitude. At high altitudes there is less oxygen so it trains the athletes' body to use oxygen more effectively.

      Yet another item that's been known forever. That's nothing more than fluff. US Swimming's Olympic Training Center for swimming is located isn't located in Colorado Springs because it's an exciting town you know. I swam there for a few days before HS Nationals in 1997 before the meet which took place at the Air Force Academy. They were trying to get us prepped for swimming at altitude because, as the words placed in tiles on the wall said something like, "7,258 feet -- the air is rare"

      I learned many of the underwater techniques used by the current greats which were developed while I was at the peak of my performance in HS. It wasn't Michael Phelps or this new scientist suddenly creating the underwater dolphin work you see now. In the mid 1990s (into the late 1990s when it was limited to 15m) you could go as far as you wanted underwater for every event (backstroke fell first to 15m and then the rest soon followed). Misty Hyman was one of the pioneers along with Denis Pankratov and they turned on their sides (much like Coughlin still does) to take the best advantage of the swirls of water that are created as you move through it.

      As I posted above, this is all not new technology and it's not worth even talking about now 10-15 years after it was developed.

      • And not only that, but the research showed that it's actually better to train at sea level and sleep at high altitude. (or.. maybe the other way around, I forget. The point was that it's better to split the time)

        The problem? Arbitrary rules restricting the use of hyperbaric (and/or hypobaric) chambers.

    • While us nerds can't exactly participate in sports competitively we definitely have the skills to improve training and playing methods of a sport =D

      Or misread the results in order to come up with new and creative ways to get back those jocks from high school.

      "Yeah, the computer says that you will improve your times if you learn to breath better - practice saying "eye am ay jackass/"

  • science? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Tumbleweed (3706) * on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:00PM (#24621949)

    I thought our *three* weapons were fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our *four*...no... *Amongst* our weapons.... Amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll post again.

  • by aztektum (170569) on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:21PM (#24622087)

    By doping, which is "bad", the athlete is increasing his ability to overcome the environment.

    By using technology we're mitigating the effects of the environment on their performance. That's good?

    The spirit of the Olympics is long gone.

    • by Chyeld (713439)

      Doping = Dangerously modifying YOURSELF to beat everyone else. This rapidly becomes an arms race which only leads to dead athletes and wasted potential.

      Finding better ways of doing things to beat everyone else by applying thought isn't the same.

      Nor are all 'better ways' allowed. I've yet to see someone use a jet ski or a powered scuba sled in any of these contests.

      • by dangitman (862676)

        Finding better ways of doing things to beat everyone else by applying thought isn't the same.

        Why not? Using drugs is often finding a better way to do something. And plenty of the allowed techniques that athletes practice are dangerous to the athlete.

        It just seems that you think drugs=bad, and can't offer a rational reason why one form of enhancement is OK, but another is not.

  • And they used that secret weapon to blind all the opposition.

  • New steroids & injection methods which can pass the drug tests are the biggest factor. Everything else is gravy. You think Natalie Coughlin looks like a colliflower by pushing around bubbles all day?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by chunk08 (1229574)
      Go climb into a pool yourself and swim a few. And don't ask me to haul you out when you're drowning and can't make it to the side. Swimming is one of the most demanding sports there is. Besides, they do other things, like lift weights and sprint on dry land.
  • Is this for sale? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rumblin'rabbit (711865) on Friday August 15, 2008 @06:45PM (#24622267) Journal
    And how much would this technology cost in Canadian dollars?

    Cause we're in the market [beijing2008.cn] right now.
  • by PPH (736903) on Friday August 15, 2008 @07:07PM (#24622461)

    ...being chased. By sharks. With lasers.

    The high diving competitions are the result of releasing the shark and playing the video of the swimmer leaping out of the pool backwards.

  • by denttford (579202) * on Friday August 15, 2008 @08:46PM (#24623231) Homepage
    Science.
    It works, bitches.
  • American strategy (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SupremoMan (912191)
    I watched way more swimming than I should probably admit this Olympics. But I noted that all Americans performing used same tactic. Basically they swam not as fast as they could until their last pool length, where they really pushed their foot on the gas sort of. I think they do this because going fast like that works up oxygen deficit and you end up out of breath. If they swam this fast in the beginning they wouldn't keep it up, and they would even slow down. But by doing it on their last stretch they
  • She just came in a full second under Coventry, for the silver.

    Now those Speedo swimsuits that shape the body... those have some obvious impact. Still, this is some cool work in fluid dynamics

  • How exactly is it a "secret weapon" when everybody knows that science is used in sports? If it were secret, why are we reading it here, wouldn't it be classified or something?
  • Science.

    It works, Bitches.

  • new anally-mounted turbo-prop with the latest beta of what's been referred to as a 'cloaking device.' In related news this morning, Haliburton announced that they had been awarded a no-bid contract to supply the US Olympics Aquatics canteen with 100 kilos, each, of refried beans and extremely cheap tamales. Jalapenos, originally part of the same contract, were struck from the deal after what were termed, 'surprises', disrupted the ladies afternoon practice heats."

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