Making the most of different strokes

May 7, 2004

In the latest in our series tracking sports scientists' role in preparing the British swim team for the Olympics, Ben Carlish talks to a biomechanist.

The Australian prime minister, John Howard, lamented swimmer Ian Thorpe's recent fall from the diving platform and 400m freestyle Olympic qualification as a "national tragedy" (though Thorpe will compete in the event after his team-mate pulled out and offered Thorpe his place).

For Australian Jodi Cossor, senior biomechanist for the British Swimming team, though, her compatriot's blunder was a "useful lesson" for the 40 elite swimmers she is helping to turn into world-beaters. "From an educational point of view, we could really put it across to our swimmers that no one in the world is immune," says the 29-year-old. "He is a true professional and he still made a mistake, which is why it's important to focus on the little things."

Cossor, along with the sport science team supporting the British squad, played no small part in helping most of the swimmers on British Swimming's World Class Performance Programme qualify last month for the Athens Olympic team. The qualifying criteria at the British Championships in Sheffield was ruthless - only posting times equal to, or faster than, the 12th quickest times in their events guaranteed qualification.

And yet, as testimony to the effectiveness of the overhaul of British swimming initiated by national performance director Bill Sweetenham, 19 UK records were broken at the event.

For Cossor, based at British Swimming's headquarters on the Loughborough University campus, "focusing on the little things" is very much her remit.

Equipped with mobile underwater cameras, banks of monitors and statistic-crunching computer hardware, she dissects the minutiae of each swimmer's stroke and tells their coaches how it can be improved.

"Biomechanics is all about the movement of the body," says Cossor, whose MSc at the University of Western Australia, Perth, specialised in human movement and biomechanics. "We try to make the swimmers move through water faster. We want to decrease the resistance they've got with each stroke by getting them to move more efficiently, so they're not using as much energy for each stroke."

Sheffield was a time for Cossor and her colleagues Stephanie Lancaster and David Irish to watch, film and compile statistics. "We did competition analysis during the event," says Cossor, who was once a high-ranked freestyle swimmer in Australia. "Then the Olympic qualifiers came back here for a four-day orientation camp where we tested them on all areas of sport science and medicine."

Cossor also analysed the performance of competitors at the French Olympic trials, using a laptop, printer, camera, tripod and a video performance-monitoring unit to give coaches fine-tuning advice. Back at Loughborough, more detailed analysis is done. Technological devices such as a large rotating plasma screen that can be turned to face the poolside allow Cossor to provide instant feedback to coaches and their swimmers using time-delayed digital replay.

While there are models of classic swim strokes, quirks in each swimmer's individual style have to be dialled into the equation. "We use the rules of biomechanics to come up with the best solution," says Cossor, adding that an individual's potential flaws are made "into a positive".

As Athens approaches, the tension among the swimmers mounts. Cossor says she's not feeling under pressure. "I'm just really excited that we get to see all the work that we've done over the past few years come into effect."

She will have to wait to see if she gets to go to Athens - accreditation restrictions mean only a few places are available for the support team. But she says philosophically: "Even if I am not there in body, I'll be there in spirit."

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