Rensselaer Research ReviewWinter 2008
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“Top Secret” Technology To Help U.S. Swimmers Trim Times at Beijing Olympics
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Rensselaer Researcher is Using Fluid Mechanics To Help Athletes Sharpen Strokes

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.

A fluids mechanics professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., used experimental flow measurement techniques to help American swimmers sharpen their strokes, shave seconds from their lap times, and race toward medals in Beijing this summer.

Professor Timothy Wei, head of Rensselaer’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering and acting dean of the university’s School of Engineering, helped develop top-secret, state-of-the-art equipment and mathematical techniques that USA Swimming coaches have been using to help train Olympians. 

“This is the real thing,” Wei said. “We have the physical system, we’re taking flow measurements of actual swimmers, and we’re getting more information than anyone has ever had before about swimming and how the swimmer interacts with the water. And so far, these techniques have contributed to some very significant improvements in the lap times of Olympic swimmers.” 

Water Flow Diagnostic Technologies

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 (DPIV), 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,” said 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.”

The secret, Wei said, 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 said. “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.” 

“Swimming research has strived to understand water flow around a swimmer for decades because how a swimmer’s body moves the surrounding water is everything,” said USA Swimming’s Biomechanics Manager Russell Mark.  “The ability to measure flow and forces in a natural and unimpeded environment hasn’t been available until recently, and Dr. Wei’s technology and methods presented USA Swimming with a unique opportunity that United States swimmers and coaches could learn a lot from.”

Crawl image on index right is from Wikimedia Commons.

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“Top Secret Technology Helps U.S. Swimmers Trim Times at Beijing Olympics”

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