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Welcome to the Diving Asylum

June 22, 2008, 12 a.m. (ET)

The most interesting training ground for Olympic-caliber divers is nowhere near the pool. At the US Diving National Training Center in Indianapolis, 60% of the work is done on dry land, at a former mental hospital which is said to be haunted.

Every morning there, athletes will execute 250 repetitions of their dives, often aided by ingenious biomechanical gizmos devised by coach John Wingfield and his scientific cohort, Ron "Mad Professor" Syria who patented computerized scoring in 1976.

Now, Wingfield says, "We have data on everything we do."

The old asylum is just five minutes west of the NCAA headquarters, but one missed turn on its deserted premises leads to a dead end marked by a run-down warehouse and a row of sheds with blown-out windows. In what could be a parking area, two hungry guard dogs bare shiny yellow teeth.

Back up the road, about a quarter mile away from the dogs, and near an abandoned guard post, lies the dry-land practice facility. Until 1994, when the Central State Mental Hospital closed, this small, nondescript building was a recreation center where the criminally insane would play basketball. The windows remain barred. Downstairs, nine Olympic contenders are in the middle of a two-hour training session. 

In one corner, Thomas Finchum, eight-time national champion on the 10-meter platform, jumps off a springboard and lands one perfect flip after another onto a mat. While untrained observers hear only the "thwack, thwack, thwack" of his bare feet hitting the mat, underneath the board is a device that can measure how much energy he applies to the plank during his approach and take-off.

Syria calls it the "board work analyzer." When activated, it makes a makes a noise that varies in pitch. The more a diver bends the board, the higher the pitch becomes and the higher the diver will bounce.

In addition to giving divers immediate feedback which helps them be more consistent, coaches can use the information to tweak the diver's approach going into a dive.

"You can plug [the analyzer] into a PC and plot out the information, instant by instant, down to a thousandth of a second," Syria said. "Then you can overlay the graphs to see the energy difference. It's pretty slick. There's nothing like it in the world.

"It had been tried," Syria said, "but the devices would break because [the takeoff] is such a violent motion. This one isn't in physical contact with the board. It sits under it and magically and mysteriously tracks the information."

For platform diving, Wingfield, uses a force plate to measure similar impulses as his athletes launch into forward and backward dives.

In addition, every six months the coaches hook the divers up to a fanny pack with EMG (electromyography) sensors which measure the electrical activity of muscles.

"Wireless telemetry sends the information to a computer, telling us which muscles are turned on and off over force and acceleration," Wingfield said. "We can also ask athletes to turn certain muscles on to see if we can get more force production or better stabilization."

Across the room, Finchum's 10m synchro partner David Boudia is working on a trampoline. Boudia has one of the most difficult individual dive lists in the world and he is trying to perfect the timing of his kick-out. He is attached to a harness and pulleys and after each rep, he can turn around and watch a delayed replay on one of several Tivo monitors.

At least 10 hidden cameras are placed around the room - including tiny ones that have high-speed shutters that offer frame-by-frame biomechanical analysis.

When Boudia wants to work on spotting his landing, Wingfield employs another gadget. He can plug in a box underneath the trampoline that sits slightly in front of where a diver would enter the water. The box displays numbers and Wingfield can change them via remote control while Boudia is in midair. When Boudia has finished the dive, he should be able to recite the random numbers that appeared under the trampoline while he spun and flipped through the air. Boudia has such visual acuity and ability to sense his orientation in the air that he can even distinguish numerals that look identical upside down (2 and 5; 6 and 9) as well as the difference between  8 and 0, which look alike at high speed.

Wingfield's high-tech toy box makes perfect sense in a precision sport that's all about physics, angles, force, and acceleration.

When all the data is combined, it not only helps divers to be more consistent and accurate but, as Wingfield noted, "We're able to make a diver go faster, higher, stronger when those forces are appropriate. And if you're faster, higher, and stronger, you can complete more somersaults and raise the degree of difficulty." Difficulty increases points earned, and he who has the most points wins.

Two months after the Beijing Olympics, however, the asylum-turned-sci-fi-biomechanics lab will be gone. Flattened.  The grounds of the old mental hospital will be redeveloped. The diving contraptions will likely be replaced by digital scales and bar-code scanners.

"I've heard this will be a grocery store," Wingfield said.

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Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.