Two-time Winter Olympians Grant Albrecht and partner Eric Pothier take part in wind tunnel testing. (Photo courtesy Canadian Luge Association)
Maybe it takes a hearty breakfast to have a gold-medal day at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Maybe it’s trust in your equipment. With many variables at play, Canada’s Olympic Winter Games hopefuls can stop guessing, and instead rely on “Top Secret” specialists helping to pinpoint that winning x-factor.
The Top Secret program – an innovative and technology-driven initiative of Own the Podium 2010
– officially formed more than a year ago to ensure Canada’s winter national sport organizations are backed by the most advanced technologies. Own the Podium’s underlying goal is to help earn an unprecedented number of medals at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. With about 40 projects on the go, and hundreds of specialists at their service, Top Secret aims to help 2010 Winter Games hopefuls improve where they need to. But forget about the details until 2010. It is Top Secret after all.
The introduction of clap skates shaved close to half a second per lap in Nagano, shattering Olympic records. Top Secret researchers may or may not develop a similar sport innovation by 2010, but they intend to find as many competitive advantages as they can for Canada’s 2010 Winter Olympians.
Keystones to success
Dr. Peter Davis, Own the Podium’s director of sport science, medicine and technology, said multiple factors are at play when an athlete performs at his or her best. Top Secret’s job is to find the keystones for building a winning performance.
“You can’t look at [a winning performance] and say ‘yes, it was the nutrition experiment, or it was the altitude program, or the piece of equipment just by itself’,” said Davis. “Everything has to come together perfectly. There are a large number of factors that contribute to a winning performance. Top Secret is merely the icing on the cake.”
Davis said all of Canada’s winter Olympians already have, or will have, the assistance of what he calls Performance Enhancement Teams (PETs) to help them and their coaches improve. PETs are made up of the variety of science and medical specialists such as biomechanists, nutritionists, physiologists, physiotherapists, sport psychologists, and other specialists as needed who are trained to enhance performance.
Davis said in the lead up to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, some sports may notice a leap in equipment quality. Other sports, meanwhile, will focus on athletes, opting to fine-tune nutrition or psychology programs or conditioning and recovery programs. Every sport is different and it’s all about matching a sport’s need with appropriate solutions.
Skate Canada’s High Performance Director, Mike Slipchuk, said Canada’s high performance figure skaters are improving thanks to the assistance of PETs.
“We’ve never really had structured support before where we’ve had a team of people,” said Slipchuk. “Now we have a team of people to help us keep the kids on task and help them prepare for the years ahead.”
The introduction of clap skates at the Nagano 1998 Winter Games resulted in the shattering of Olympic speedskating records. (Photo courtesy Speed Skating Canada)
As an example, some of their biggest training improvements are thanks to special video analysis programs that help figure skaters learn new tricks and gives the athletes an opportunity to critique their performance with a coach. It’s a simple technology but it works small wonders.
Davis said basic video performance technology is becoming more common and can be accessible to any coach, from the senior international coach down to the local high school or club coach. Top Secret takes video a step further by converging it with technologies, such as new ways of sensing heart rate or strength and power data. Some software programs enable a coach to see an athlete in slow motion in what they refer to as “side-by-side” – filming the athlete practicing their skills, and as they improve over weeks or months, mapping the progress. A coach can also put their athlete next to a world champion on the video screen and synchronize, overlap, or mirror the two athletes to see the differences.
While this type of technology and support programs are not uniquely Canadian, they give Canada’s national winter teams an added advantage and a boost of confidence when a medal is on the line.
Walter Corey, Luge Canada’s senior national head coach, said Canada’s training programs are finally on par with Austria, Germany, Italy and the United States.
Going into their third season of working with PETs, Canadian luge athletes have fewer chronic back problems caused by the jarring downhill ride. Corey said athletes’ careers will be considerably longer if this support continues, especially since luge is a sport that typically takes 10 years of hard work before the success pays off on the World Cup stage.
“It’s kind of like rodeo – you’re getting tossed around by a lot of g-force so you have to be in good condition to handle that,” said Corey.
Aside from athlete conditioning, Luge Canada has also been given access to a wind tunnel for testing the effects of turbulence on luge walls. Corey said he remembers a time in the 1990s when athletes had to pay to do their own wind tunnel testing. Occasionally, the team got lucky and the television media would do a story on sports enabling a free ticket into the wind tunnel.
Olympian Jeff Christie, member of the Canadian National luge team, tests aerodynamics in a wind tunnel. (Photo courtesy Canadian Luge Association)
The Canadian national team relied on European manufacturers for fiberglass and other materials for the construction of their luge sleds. More recently, however, they have been able to work with highly specialized fiberglass and metal manufacturers in Canada – companies willing to fine-tune their products for Luge Canada. As a result, athletes can be outfitted with different sleds or blades of various metal compositions to compensate for other climate and temperature conditions.
“It’s the same goal as always: to get as aerodynamic as possible,” said Corey. “It’s a game of how much risk you can take for how much reward.”
Snowboard goes high performance
Snowboarders, on the other hand, can worry less about tinkering with their equipment as the sport has developed into a competition of fitness, discipline and mental stamina. Hot dogging doesn’t win gold medals.
Two-time Olympian and Snowboard Canada head alpine coach Mark Fawcett said snowboarding equipment is so light, fast and flexible, that it’s almost to the point of perfection. Snowboarding, he said, is becoming a high performance sport with high performance expectations.
“It used to be you were limited by your equipment, that you always felt like you could do more if your board could hold on a bit better,” said Fawcett. “It’s not like that anymore – now it’s limitless.”
Fawcett, who began snowboarding in 1985 on a plastic snowboard that had a skateboard mounted on top, attributes his 14 snowboarding World Cup titles to discipline and mental training. And that’s something he passes on to his athletes. There was a day when many of Fawcett’s competitors in the early ‘90s would rely on raw talent alone. More recently, however, snowboarders have become disciplined in their training, nutrition and mental preparation with the help of increased sport medicine and science support.
Fawcett said it’s the same for alpine, half pipe and snowboard cross. Since the invention of the hour-glass shaped board, some of the latest and greatest advancements in snowboarding have been attitudes toward fitness and discipline.
“It’s going to be the human factor, not the equipment factor, to see what level the athlete can take it to,” said Fawcett. “And it’s pretty insane already in all three of the disciplines – it’s extraordinary what they’re doing.”
Top Secret aims to make Canada’s athletes higher, faster and stronger but in the end, it’s the athlete who has to execute the performance.