Michael Phelps Rules the Waves at the Olympics

U.S. swimming champion Michael Phelps has made history in Beijing by becoming the first 11-time gold medalist in the Olympics. He is now the unquestioned greatest short-distance swimmer ever. But could there be more to his story than meets the eye?

Yesterday, Phelps won the 200-meter individual butterfly and followed that up an hour later with a winning effort in the 800-meter freestyle relay. Both races resulted in world records. He posted a mark of 1 minute 52.03 seconds in the four-lap butterfly event, shattering his own record of 1:52.09 from the 2007 world championships. In the freestyle relay he set the pace for the Americans with a leadoff leg of 1:43.31 that resulted in a phenomenal total time of 6:58.56, the first mark ever recorded under 7 minutes for the four-man event (smashing the previous mark of 7:03.24 set by the U.S. squad at last year's championship).

Accounts of his remarkable achievements abound on the Web (such as this AP story).

Phelps faces only an easy semifinal today. Then he will return to pursue three more gold medals at the Aquatics Center, where he has already won five of five finals in world-record times. He previously earned six golds at the Athens Games. In terms of gold, Phelps is now the lone holder of the all-time Olympics medal count, eclipsing the nine won by legends such as Larissa Latynina (gymnastics), Carl Lewis (track and field), Paavo Nurmi (running), and Mark Spitz (swimming).

What we're interested in, though, in this forum, is how technology might have helped boost him through the water in Beijing. We've covered the revolutionary swimsuits, the Speedo LZR Racer line, that he and other athletes are wearing at the Olympics this year (please see Olympic Tech in China). Could there be more?

Absolutely. Here's one more example.

A professor of fluids mechanics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., has been working with USA Swimming, the group that fields the American team at the Olympics, on improving event times by analyzing the hydrodynamics of its competitors in the pool.

Professor Timothy Wei, head of Rensselaerâ''s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, has developed cutting-edge hardware and software that analyzes a swimmer's movement through the water. He used it to consult with USA Swimming's coaches to break down the techniques of the athletes under their supervision. Wei's experimental flow measurement technology uses 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.

It could be responsible for giving the U.S. team members the extra precision they need to perfect their strokes, according to one of the participants in the process.

"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."

As outlined in an account at the Newswise site online (please see "Top Secret" Technology To Help U.S. Swimmers Trim Times at Beijing Olympics), Wei believes the real secret to success in training an athlete to be a faster swimmer lies in understanding how they interact with the fluid they move through.

"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 noted.

You can see more about Wei's work with the U.S. swim team by viewing the videos Rensselaer has posted to its university Web site.

As for the new all-time gold medal winner, he may be so talented that training technology just might be a ripple behind him in a larger scheme of things.

After finishing second to Phelps and teammates in the 4X200 freestyle yesterday, Russia's Alexander Sukhorukov quipped, "He is just a normal person, but maybe from a different planet."

It must be a planet made of water.


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