Back in March, Laurenne Ross was left wondering if her professional ski career was finished after she fell and sustained a severe injury to her right knee on the last day of the 2016-2017 skiing season. Almost a year later, Ross is ready to represent the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games after a long rehabilitation period that included some time spent skiing the slopes in virtual reality.
Ross’ recovery and return to the Olympics is a testament to her own sheer grit and the support of family, friends, physicians, physical therapists and trainers. But she also represents one of a growing number of professional U.S. skiers who have begun incorporating virtual reality experiences into their training. Almost all the top U.S. athletes who participate in the international alpine skiing competitions have at least tried out VR, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the national governing body for competitive skiing and snowboarding. Some have even made VR a regular part of their training routines.
“VR is a tool that is used regularly by the athletes, including those who have qualified for the Olympics,” says Troy Taylor, a sports scientist and high performance director for U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
Just over two years ago, Taylor placed a cold call to STRIVR, a Stanford University spinout startup that has created VR experiences for clients such as American football teams at the college and NFL levels. He had the idea that a similar form of VR training could prove beneficial for skiers and snowboarders, but he professed to having no idea how to shoot, stitch together and review a 360-degree video.
“Thankfully, STRIVR didn’t hang up on me, and we’ve worked closely together ever since,” Taylor says.
The results from the collaboration between U.S. Ski & Snowboard and STRIVR are less like video games where players typically have some degree of movement freedom and more like the 360-degree videos that can be viewed on YouTube. Such experiences can be viewed through higher-end VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift, but athletes will often rely on simpler smartphone-based VR head-mounted displays when they’re on the road at competitions.
That all may sound somewhat less than cutting edge in terms of VR hardware and software. But in this case, having realistic video of skiing is far more important for training than creating a more versatile virtual ski world based on the latest computer graphics, says Derek Belch, founder and CEO of STRIVR. Athletes may not have control over their movements during the simulated skiing runs, but side-by-side comparisons have shown they take the video-realistic training experience much more seriously than a VR sequence based on computer-generated imagery.
“The reason we capture real video is so that during review, the brain responds as if the athlete is back on the mountain and it looks real, sounds real, feels real,” Belch explains. “That is when the real learning kicks in.”
The VR skiing experience may sacrifice athletes’ control over movement, but many athletes still end up making “subtle, often rhythmical patterns as they run through the turns on a virtual course,” Taylor explains. In the case of Ross and other athletes who undergo rehabilitation from injuries, trainers often pair the VR headset with a Bosu ball or balance board to provide some motor control challenges in the exercise.
“The benefits are predominantly on the mental side, gaining confidence by having virtually skied down the course a number of times at close to race speed before getting in the start gate,” Taylor says. “However, on the injury rehab side we’re seeing examples of increased motor control earlier in the rehab process with athletes using VR as part of their rehabilitation.”
Laurenne Ross using the STRIVR VR system in the gym as part of her rehab.Photo: US Ski & Snowboard
That added bit of preparation from hitting the virtual slopes could make an especially significant difference for injured athletes such as Ross, who spent the better part of a year unable to ski after undergoing surgery to repair the torn ACL and meniscus in her right knee. She appears to have incorporated VR training into both her rehabilitation and as part of her general training in preparation for her return to the physical ski slopes.
On the eve of her official return to skiing at the World Cup competition in December, Ross wrote the following journal entry:
Though I haven't skied much at all over the last 8 months, my body remembers. My mind remembers, my muscles remember. My skiing is still there, my fundamentals are still there...my trust and flow is what I'm searching for now.
Ross went on to post a 30th place finish in the super G event—one of the two alpine racing events that require skiers to pass through various gates—during the World Cup competition at St. Moritz, Switzerland. She went on to notch an 8th place ranking in the super G at Val d’Isere, France later in December, and placed 13th in the downhill event during a follow-up competition at Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria, in January.
It became official after Ross turned in strong performances in both the downhill and super G events at Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Based on her overall season rankings, she had confirmed her spot on the U.S. Olympic team headed for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Pyeongchang, South Korea. This marks an Olympic return for Ross, given that she first made the U.S. Olympic team during the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia.
As for U.S. Ski & Snowboard, the organization continues shooting and creating its own 360-degree videos as the basis for new VR training experiences tailored to its athletes’ needs. It primarily relies on having team coaches—and a few elite athletes—wear the 360-degree camera rig on ski runs to capture the immersive sense of tackling some of the world’s most challenging ski courses.
Despite the ability to create its own VR experiences, U.S. Ski & Snowboard continues to keep in touch with STRIVR in order to look forward to what’s coming down the pipeline with VR technology. Taylor specifically cited wanting to “maintain a competitive advantage in this area.”
“VR will be one of a number of important performance tools that we use to help our athletes optimally prepare for the 2018 Winter Games,” Taylor says.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.