This article was originally published in the New York Times in 2002, as part of a series I did for their ‘Circuits’ section. Tech for most swimmers is finally just now arriving, in the form of waterproof Apple watches, etc.
June 6, 2002 – At the edge of a sun-drenched Olympic-size pool here, members of the Stanford women’s swimming team awaited a go-ahead signal from their coach, Richard Quick, as he introduced the next drill.
”O.K., let’s do a moderate 300 again — emphasize distance per cycle,” the coach said. Then he added a command not often heard in most swimming practices: ”Beeper set.”
Each swimmer reached up to her swim cap and pressed a button activating the Aquapacer, the latest in digital training gear for swimmers. A blue plastic unit about the size of a small wristwatch, the device is worn inside the cap or on the goggle strap. It gives six short countdown beeps and then the women push off, timing their ”hand hits” on the water’s surface to the device’s programmed beep sequences.
Though not yet commonplace at the local Y.M.C.A., digital technology is finding its way into the world of competitive swimming as top athletes and their coaches look for ways to optimize their performance. Teams are also experimenting with digital video editing systems, biometrics and nutrition management software. And while some of the new technologies may sound Pavlovian or worse — the Aquapacer’s beeps travel not through the outer ear but directly through the skull to the inner ear — top swimmers seem to be excited about them.
”I think technology’s pretty cool,” said Tara Kirk, a 19-year-old Stanford sophomore who is a national record-holder in the 100- and 200-meter breast stroke. As for the Aquapacer, she said, ”You’d think that it would drive you crazy, but it doesn’t really unless you’re off your time or pace.”
The Aquapacers was developed in the mid-1990’s by Patrick Miley, a Scottish helicopter pilot who had been a competitive swimmer and coach. Only a few thousand have been sold, but coaches rave about the results. ”A large percentage of failure in competitions is at the neural level, the body’s inability to maintain frequency,” said Jonty Skinner, director of national team technical support for USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming. ”When you fade or you die, it’s very rarely due to a lack of energy. Kids that have great neural training can hold a frequency across the pool — you put them on that little device and they just go.”
Mr. Quick, who has coached 12 national collegiate championship teams, said that the Aquapacer, programmable for each swimmer to within one-hundredth of a second, was vastly better than standing at poolside with a stopwatch while shouting out the time and pacing the strokes.
The device can be programmed, for example, to decrease the stroke rate — the number of hand hits per minute — while a swimmer maintains the same time for a given distance, forcing an increase in distance per stroke. ”It’s so measurable,” Mr. Quick, 59, said. ”Pretty soon you can ask a person to go at a specific stroke rate and they can almost do it without the beeper.”
He credited the device with helping the two-time Olympic gold medalist Brooke Bennett, training with another coach, to shave nearly seven seconds off her winning time in the 800-meter freestyle between 1996 and 2000. Although swimmers cannot use Aquapacers during races, they can wear them during warmup laps to get the target rates in their heads.
The device, from Challenge and Response, a British manufacturer, comes in a solo version that costs $100 (available at http://www.aquapacer.com) and a team version including a master programming unit that downloads programs to multiple beepers via an infrared link (about $930 plus $90 per beeper). Each beeper contains a chip with a microprocessor and a small amount of memory. Another company, Finis, of Tracy, Calif., is introducing a programmable beeper called the Tempo Trainer (www .tempotrainer.com), aimed at individual swimmers, with a retail price of $30.
Several other digital technologies being used to record and improve performances. After practice, Ms. Kirk teased Mr. Quick about forgetting his password to a database of national race results that includes information like stroke rate and lap times for the top 1,000 swimmers. Immediately after a race, swimmers can log on and dive into their own data or their competitors’.
”All these kids are technically more advanced than I am,” said Mr. Quick, who then played a CD-ROM with underwater videos of Ms. Kirk and other swimmers. New video software enables coaches to add graphics or a voice-over to underwater swimming videos as a television commentator or producer might. ”You see how she drops her knees right there — I want to eliminate that,” he said. ”I could upload this for all the swimmers on my team to watch.”
The next wave in digital swimming technology may be software that teaches swimmers to become more hydrodynamic, or efficient in the water. Already coaches use towing machines to pull swimmers through the water at a faster rate than they can swim, helping them to feel their bodies’ resistance. Work is under way at the USA Swimming headquarters in Colorado Springs to use computational fluid dynamics technology to develop full-body models for swimmers. Help is provided by the nearby Air Force Academy, which has long used similar models for airplanes.
To create such a model, a swimmer’s body is scanned by a series of lasers. The resulting data is the basis for a three-dimensional grid that is used as a skeleton for a structure that is known as a ”mesh,” which is in turn surrounded by ”fluid flows.”
”Just understanding what the drag patterns are” for different body types will be the initial goal, said John Walker, the technical support coordinator for USA Swimming, who said he expected the first stable models to be running by this summer. The goal will be to study the ways an athlete’s shape affects performance — like whether a breast stroke kick produces a lot of turbulence areas, or vortices, limiting the effectiveness of a swimmer’s ”pulling surfaces.”
John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said of the research, ”What they’re trying to accomplish would be spectacular if they could do it.”
Mr. Leonard acknowledged that the gamut of technological advances were likely to be adopted initially only by elite competitive swimmers. ”Swimming is a low-tech sport, no matter how much we try to gussy it up,” he said. But ultimately, he said, the benefits will make their way to fitness swimmers.
”They’re going to enjoy the sport a whole lot more once they get a decent rhythm,” he said. ”Nobody wants to look like a plodder.”