Swimmers put to test on the rack

June 25, 2004

Subaqua video modules and bespoke training machines could propel Britons to Olympic gold. Matthew Baker continues our series on the sports science revolution.

"It's the little things that count: when you're competing at the highest level, preparation is everything," says Henryk Lakomy, glancing at Britain's Olympic swimmers training at Loughborough University's pool.

In truth, these "little things" - which included advanced technology support - have revolutionised British swimming.

Today, Lakomy, the swim team's manager of science and medicine, is motoring up and down the poolside in his custom-made camera buggy. A video camera trails in the water, recording every stroke and splash. At regular intervals he calls swimmers over to play back the analysis on a 50-inch plasma screen.

"We're able to video them from multiple viewpoints - underwater views, front, sides and all available angles," he explains. And the playback is immediate, enabling them to identify any possible flaw that might affect performance.

"We noticed one (high-level) swimmer was swimming with open hands. When you're slipping water and not gripping it, that can be the difference between first and fourth and he didn't even know he was doing it."

Such attention to detail is not just confined to the pool. In the poolside gym, Lakomy puts swimmers through sessions on another of his custom-made machines - the swim bench. They lie on the bench, which is not fixed, and can roll from side to side, place their hands in the stirrups and mimic a chosen swim stroke. As well as being able to correct technical swimming problems associated with body roll and core tension, the swim bench is used to address physical imbalances.

"The computer display will give two readings for your left and right-stroke action," he notes. "Swimming is a bilateral activity so if you're, say, a right hand-dominated swimmer, this will create an imbalance that the readout will show. We correct any imbalance through appropriate gym work on the other arm because an imbalance puts abnormal stresses on the body."

Back in the pool, the rigorous preparation continues with the swim rack.

Using the equipment, swimmers have a cord attached to them and swim against adjustable resistance. It can also be used the other way round, with swimmers being pulled through the pool to gain experience of swimming faster than they ever have before.

The technology, favoured by Australian team coach Bill Sweetenham, dovetails with his coaching methods, and Lakomy believes it is a recipe for success. "We have one of the best, if not the best, swimming support teams in the world because of Bill," he says.

"Ultimately, what we are trying to do is educate the athletes. All the technology we use educates the swimmer about his or her limitations, technique, strengths and weaknesses. Sport science plays an integral part in elite competition nowadays. And athletes are more intelligent as a result. Gone are the days when you could get by on talent and brute force alone at the highest level."

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