Swiss balls expected to make big splash

February 27, 2004

In part two of our series tracking how academics are helping the British swimming team prepare for the Olympics, Ben Carlish meets the physiotherapist.

As Great Britain's swimming team picks up the pace in the run-up to the Olympics, physiotherapist Pat Dunleavy works with his sport science team and swim coaches to ensure that every member of the team is in peak condition.

For Dunleavy that means getting out to the squad's elite swimmers dotted up and down the country, giving them a close check and ensuring that every part of their body is in full working order.

"At this stage of training, every swimmer is putting in a fair amount of endurance- mileage work, and the whole body is being pushed close to the edge.

"Swimming involves the whole body; if you haven't got the arms, the legs and the spine working to maximum efficiency, the swimmer won't function properly," says Dunleavy, who is employed by the English Institute of Sport.

This is why during training sessions - held at the team's headquarters based at Loughborough University - Dunleavy runs special Swiss ball/medicine ball sessions to foster holistic coordination.

The swimmers bounce on the Swiss balls - those big plastic affairs you find in your local gym - while pushing them forwards and backwards with their feet. At the same time they hurl medicine balls to each other across the room.

If it sounds difficult - it is. But that's the idea, Dunleavy says. "It has to be instinctive because we're trying to develop those patterns they have to develop in the water," he says. "They move their arms, and their legs have to kick in time to their body roll, while their shoulders and hips have also to be in time. That's what they must do naturally and that's what we're trying to switch them on to."

When it comes to injury treatment, Dunleavy has many more technological tools at his disposal, thanks to advances made through sports science research. Now, for example, if a swimmer has pulled a muscle, Dunleavy and his colleagues are able to build up an accurate picture of the injury through the use of electromyography and monitoring equipment.

In addition, Dunleavy can give his swimmers a training programme DVD to follow, burnt from videos of them carrying out training exercises tailored to their individual needs.

Dunleavy is also able to monitor how his swimmers' bodies are performing under pressure via underwater video cameras - an essential component in the swimming team's growing international profile.

The all-seeing "underwater eyes" at the Loughborough 50m pool allow sport scientists to pick up on any abnormalities in the swimmer's stroke. Such inconsistencies and glitches can be attributable to technique, the domain of the biomechanist. But they could be the result of a joint defect in the hip, for example, or perhaps an inflexible hamstring, and this is where Dunleavy steps in.

Perhaps one of the biggest advances he has noticed, however, has been the significant increase in the knowledge swimmers have of their injuries.

Underpinning Dunleavy's work is the radically professional approach introduced by Bill Sweetenham, the national performance director, since he took over the reins of the team three years ago.

Dunleavy says Sweetenham's meticulous attention to detail is becoming more focused as the weeks are crossed off the training schedule ahead of the Athens Olympic Games, which start in August. One gets the impression that Sweetenham is a hard taskmaster, but Dunleavy and his colleagues wouldn't have it any other way.

This dedicated approach also means that the team is becoming ever more tight-knit, sharing both the work and the dividends it produces.

"Everyone's involved, whether it's the coach, the team manager, the doctors, the physio or the biomechanist," Dunleavy says.

"And when somebody wins an event then everybody has put something into that swimmer somewhere along that line to help them achieve it. That's where the job satisfaction comes from."

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