Don's Diary: Helping secure Olympic victory

March 8, 2002

Spring 2000

I arrive in Edinburgh looking for research collaboration and keen to set up activities linking engineering, materials and sport.

Dave Saunders, a physiologist who works with elite athletes, introduces me to Scottish curling coach Mike Hay, and we agree to work on a sweep ergometer for training curlers.

Curling, to my understanding, is the only target sport where the trajectory of the projectile can be altered once it has left the starting player.

Sweeping is used to alter the path of the stone - taking it farther and straighter. It is the most physically demanding part of curling, but what is the best way to sweep? Is speed or pressure of the essence? The idea behind the sweep ergometer is to quantify the velocity of the brush and the force applied to the ice.

Summer 2000

Work begins on designing and instrumenting a curling brush for training and evaluation purposes. It is based on the real brush (because asking athletes to handle equipment that appears very different affects their performance), but an accelerometer is fitted inside and we replace the plastic axle with a steel one, fitted with strain gauge sensors.

Johan Malm, an undergraduate project student, works into the night with Alistair Fitchie, our electronics technician, to finish the first prototype.

The following day we travel to Perth ice rink, one of the few locations with curling ice throughout the year. Curling ice is "pebbled", an effect created by smoothing and then sprinkling its surface with raised droplets of water (this considerably reduces the friction).

Having found extra extension leads and added a few strips of duct tape, we make the first tests with the sweep ergometer.

Winter 2000-01

Various modifications to the hardware and the software continue to be made.

The atmosphere in the Centre for Materials Science and Engineering, established only a year before, livens up as the office is filled with enthusiastic postgraduates. Pete Watson starts a PhD with me on using novel sensors to monitor the behaviour of complex beams (skis), and Ed Maycock starts work on designing a component for a climbing harness.

At Greenacres Curling Centre, near Glasgow, we film a short piece about the sweep ergometer for Tomorrow's World. Inevitably, there is the story of "what the cameras didn't see" - the false starts, the entourage of people following the device and sweeper up the ice, armed with tools, a box of electronics and laptop.

Autumn 2001

A final-year student, Alex Campbell, works on making the brush more reliable and compact, while Mark-Paul Buckingham, my latest PhD student, engineers a remote data-capture system so that we can eliminate the trailing wires.

Alistair Fitchie and Iain Lindsey, a lecturer in electrical engineering and electronics, provide substantial guidance.

Mark-Paul's work will be applied to performance training for elite snowboarders and the design of boards but, in the meantime, he shows considerable enthusiasm and ability for curling.

Winter 2001-02 We spend a day at Gogar Park Curling Club with the women's team. Mike Hay devises a particularly punishing series of tests to determine the maximal output over bouts of sweeping.

The good spirit and humour of the team members is apparent as we trail up and down the ice with my laptop still attached to the brush with wires.

We spend an hour or so interpreting the data. Each player shows different characteristics, from which I am able to advise on the best sweeping techniques and who is best placed where.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council informs me that my proposal for investigating the fundamentals of slider-ice friction is successful.

February 2002

Five million people in the United Kingdom tune in to watch the Olympic final of the women's curling competition. Rhona Martin's last stone was incredible. Britain takes home its first winter Olympic gold since 1984.

Jane Blackford is a lecturer in engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

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