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Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering

“Top Secret” Technology Helps Olympic Swimmers Trim Times

Milliseconds can mean the difference between triumph and defeat in the world of Olympic sports, leading more trainers and athletes to look toward technology as a tool to get an edge on the competition.

Professor Timothy Wei, head of Rensselaer’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering and acting dean of the School of Engineering, helped develop top-secret equipment and mathematical techniques that the USA Swimming’s Biomechanics Manager Russell Mark used to coach Olympic hopefuls.

In years past, swimming coaches have used computer modeling and simulation to hone the techniques of athletes. But Wei developed state-of-the-art water flow diagnostic technologies, modifying and combining force measurement tools developed for aerospace research with a video-based flow measurement technique known as Digital Particle Image Velocimetry, in order to create a robust training tool that reports the performance of a swimmer in real time.

“This project moved the swimming world beyond the observational into scientific fact,” says USA Swimming Coach Sean Hutchison. “The knowledge gained gave me the foundation for which every technical stroke change in preparation for the Beijing Olympics was based.”

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“Top Secret” Technology Helps Olympic Swimmers Trim Times
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Professor Timothy Wei, head of Rensselaer’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering and acting dean of the School of Engineering. (Photo by Kris Qua)
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“I can confidently say that it helped my athletes get here,” Hutchinson wrote in an e-mail from Beijing. He called Wei’s work “an advantage over our competition.”

The secret, Wei says, is in understanding how the water moves. The new system incorporates highly sophisticated mathematics with stop-motion video technology to identify key vortices, pinpoint the movement of the water, and compute how much energy the swimmer exerts.

“You have to know the flow,” Wei says. “To see how a swimmer’s motion affects the flow, you need to know how much force the swimmer is producing, and how that force impacts the water.”

Wei has been working with USA Swimming for several years, but the idea and design of the new flow measurement tool took shape in 2007. Preliminary tests were conducted in October, and the coaches and swimmers spent months incorporating what they have learned into their training regimes.

Wei is already thinking of ways to improve his technology to be even more effective when training swimmers to compete in the 2012 London Olympics.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.