May 09 Life in the fast lane with BMW

By Doug Williams | May 09, 2012, 11:30 a.m. (ET)
Bryan Clay
 "As Bryan Clay (above) is fond of telling us, the difference between a gold medal and no medal can be centimeters." - BMW engineer Cris Pavloff
Ricky Berens has been swimming since the age of 4, when his mom put him in a pool and coached him on a local swim team in Charlotte, N.C.

Twenty years later, after thousands of practice hours and millions of strokes, Berens knows the sport inside and out. As an Olympic gold medalist at Beijing in 2008, the former University of Texas standout ranks among the world’s elite swimmers.

But just like every other American hoping to win another medal or make a future Olympic team, Berens is never satisfied. He’s still looking for an extra edge, a way to swim more efficiently, a way to cut another hundredth of a second off a race.

Which is why he found himself recently standing on a pool deck at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, feeling as if he were “getting ready to be in a video game.”

Berens had small squares of black tape on his wrists, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and toes that held tiny motion-tracking sensors in place as part of a new, joint project between BMW and USA Swimming.

The goal: to use the same technology employed by BMW in the engineering of its cars to help streamline the way an elite athlete can swim through water. To cut those hundredths of seconds and help swimmers such as Berens be even better.

Specifically, the technology used in the program will help swimmers with their starts and turns, areas where swimmers can make their most dramatic improvements. As Berens noted in an email, “Races are won and lost at the wall.”

“I am at a point in my career that I have swum so much that it is more natural to me than walking,” said Berens, who was the first U.S. swimmer to take a trial run with the technology. “My stroke just comes to me. The real way for me to get faster now is the little things, the starts and turns. Races are decided by hundredths of a second. Improving my underwater kicks and turns could mean the difference between the Olympic team and watching the Olympics from my couch.”

Previously BMW, a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor, worked with USA Track and Field to set up a somewhat similar motion-detection program to study the performance of long jumpers, focusing on horizontal approach velocity, vertical takeoff velocity and takeoff angle. That technology already has been tested and passed on to USA Track and Field for implementation at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.

The technology for swimming analysis is in its early stages and has so far just been tested once, on Berens. This month, Olympic champion Janet Evans will be the next swimmer to be tested.

Right now, BMW is in the experimental process of developing the system and working out all the kinks before it's finalized and passed on to USA Swimming for its use.

A representative for BMW says the company was approached by both governing bodies, USA Track and Field and USA Swimming, to see if the company’s engineers -- who use science and technology to analyze motion and performance in their quest to create better cars -- could use their technology and expertise to help athletic performance.

As Berens swam in Colorado Springs, underwater cameras captured his strokes and kicks. At the same time the motion sensors provided information about the movements of his body. In combination that information will be able to be viewed by coaches and athletes together to determine where improvements can be made.

Cris Pavloff, an advanced technology engineer at BMW who has worked on the project with Berens and USA Swimming, said there are “definite synergies” between his work on automobiles and athletes. BMW’s goal was to provide data through the use of its technology that the experts — coaches and athletes — could analyze and translate into better performance.

“The sports scientists at USA Swimming identified starts and turns as pivotal moments in a race and asked for technology that would provide quantitative data analysis of a swimmer’s movement in the first 15 meters of underwater swimming,” Pavloff said.

“This data delivery might be especially beneficial in the analysis of the dolphin kick, which sports scientists recognize as a hugely powerful weapon, but have no data to decipher why or how it’s so powerful.”

Pavloff said by tracking the movement of six parts on the body, data will show how well those parts are working together. The “end goal” will allow coaches to use that data to “make technique adjustments that will work best for that individual swimmer’s body characteristics.”

Pavloff, who worked with 2008 Olympic decathlete gold medalist Bryan Clay in the long-jump testing, said he knows the tiniest improvement can make a huge difference for an Olympic-caliber athlete.

“As Bryan Clay is fond of telling us, the difference between a gold medal and no medal can be centimeters or thousandths of a second, so even a small advantage can make a big difference,” Pavloff said.

Swimmers have long used video to watch and analyze what they do while training or competing. But Berens said he is hopeful the new testing system will allow him to know better what to work on.

“I can always look at a video and make some conclusions about the way it looks, but I never know what is the right way to do it,” he said. “That is what is going to be great about this new technology. I will be able to know which part of my kick makes me faster, what angle my knees need to be for the most power and how fast of repetition my kick should be in order to go the fastest.

“That will come in Phase II, though, so we will have to wait and see.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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