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As a lifelong sports enthusiast, Wendi Weimar will watch everything from soccer to gymnastics as athletes chase gold medal glory during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. As a scientist, however, Weimar will in all likelihood notice nuances imperceptible to the typical TV viewer.
For example, did the sprinter in Lane 3 lose out on a medal because his stride length happened to be shorter than that of the sprinter in Lane 4? Did the high jump contestant fail to clear the bar because she didn't achieve the desired level of angular momentum?
Weimar, an associate professor and director of the Sport Biomechanics Lab in the College of Education's Department of Kinesiology, has worked with a number of Olympic athletes to refine their techniques and training methods to achieve faster times and better finishes. Several members of Auburn University's 28-member Olympic contingent – comprised of 24 athletes and four coaches representing 13 countries – have enlisted Weimar's assistance in recent years.
"I've been a sports fan my whole life, but the Olympics have taken on a new fervor for me," Weimar said. "Not only am I rooting for the American athletes, but I'm also rooting for [Auburn University] athletes that I know."
Weimar's connections to former and current Olympians began several years ago when former Auburn swimming head coach and current U.S. Olympic team assistant David Marsh inquired as to whether she could help some of his swimmers improve their times. Marsh quickly saw value in developing a better understanding of sports biomechanics, the study of the body's muscular, skeletal and joint actions.
"He asked us to work with them from a biomechanics and martial arts perspective," Weimar said. "I took several of his swimmers and we worked on balance, breathing, fighting spirit and those types of things. We branched out more into biomechanics and took cameras into the pool and did in-the-water analysis with the swimmers and coaches."
The fact that Marsh presented Weimar with several of Auburn's national championship rings indicates the results were appreciated. USA Swimming even commissioned a study by Weimar that examined the approaches and "push-off" strategies employed by swimmers in making turns during races.
Weimar can identify imperfections in an athlete's technique with the help of several tools, including a "force platform" embedded on a 44-foot walkway, a Vicon motion capture system with 10 high-resolution infrared video cameras, a digitizing system and an electromyography system that records the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. Such equipment enables Weimar and her graduate students to evaluate such things as an athlete's balance and gait patterns, the "take-off" speed of a sprinter or the force exerted by a long-jumper. They can provide athlete-to-athlete comparisons or help develop personalized stretching and weight lifting programs aimed at transforming weaknesses into strengths.
Former Auburn swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Mark Gangloff certainly sees the benefit of working with biomechanists. Gangloff, a two-time Olympian who earned a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Summer Games as a member of the 4 x 100-meter medley relay team, said being able to analyze underwater video helped him immensely.
"As athletes, we all have blinders on because we can only see things from a certain dimension," Gangloff said. "To break the mold, you sometimes have to work with people who do not have the same background.
"Initially, looking at biomechanics can be a daunting task or a scary thing. [Dr. Weimar] does a wonderful job of putting biomechanics into layman's terms."
In addition to helping competitors, the lab work also provides crucial experience for the students assisting Weimar.
"It's an opportunity for my students to grow," Weimar said. "They see and partake in the analysis of how you break a skill down and how you apply your knowledge from class to help someone move better."
When French historian and International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin settled on the motto "citius, altius, fortius" – Latin for "faster, higher, stronger" – in 1894, he couldn't have possibly envisioned scientific and technological innovation playing such a major role in pushing athletes to those standards. For modern Olympians, however, the information gleaned from infrared cameras in a biomechanist's motion-capture room matter as much as a coach's advice on carb-loading or weight training. Understanding the functional roles of muscles can influence training procedures and result in athletes moving more efficiently and effectively.
"Coaches are definitely seeing the value of [biomechanics]," Gangloff said. "You really just have to get down into the video, look at it the right way and make some logical conclusions about it."
What does this mean in terms of separating Olympic medalists from the rest of the pack? Consider the case of former Auburn sprinter Kerron Stewart, who earned a silver medal in the 100 meters and a bronze in the 200 meters for Jamaica in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Stewart and Jamaican teammate Sherone Simpson tied for the silver medal in the 100 meters, each finishing in 10.98 seconds. Because there are only three spots on the medalists' platform and two of them were occupied by co-silver medalists, U.S. sprinter Lauryn Williams didn't receive anything in return for having the third-best time (11.03 seconds). The difference between Olympic haves and have-nots is cuticle-thin, as Warren Doscher showed in the book "The Art of Sprinting: Techniques for Speed and Performance." Doscher examined biomechanical data on Olympic sprinters' strides from start to finish, the average length of their strides and the turnover rate (the runners' strides-per-second).
Stewart's height worked to her advantage in the 100-meter finals as her long legs helped her reach the finish line in 48 strides while consuming 2.08 meters per stride – the best totals of any competitor. Williams, the reigning world champion entering the 2008 Summer Games, had a high turnover rate (4.89 strides per second), but couldn't move as efficiently as Stewart due to her shorter stride length (1.89 meters-per-stride, 53 total strides). A biomechanist could potentially use this information and other data to improve Williams' chances of keeping pace with Stewart if they meet again.
Last year, Weimar worked with Stewart and former Auburn hurdler and fellow 2012 Olympian Shamar Sands (Bahamas), among others.
"Kerron had some issues with her starts and we helped her there," said Weimar, a former college field hockey player who became interested in biomechanics while recovering from a sports injury. "The biggest thing we look for are decrements in performance. Then we look for the reasons why it happens. We analyze their movements and try to identify what is preventing them from being more successful."
Other beneficiaries of Weimar's insights in recent years include Auburn and 2012 Olympic swimmers Tyler McGill (U.S.), George Bovell (Trinidad & Tobago), Cesar Cielo (Brazil) and Kirsty Coventry (Zimbabwe). Coventry, Bovell and Cielo each have Olympic medals to their credit. Weimar also worked with two-time U.S. Olympian and 2004 gold medalist Mark Gangloff, who narrowly missed qualifying for his third Summer Games appearance in June.
"They're always impressed when we show them something that they didn't realize was happening," Weimar said. "Those guys are so in tune with their bodies and what they're doing. They're always appreciative of our help."
At the conclusion of the 2012 Summer Games, perhaps one will be so grateful as to drop a medal off at the Sport Biomechanics Lab.
Last Updated: July 31, 2012