26 April 2012

The Australian Insititute of Sport hi-tech pool wins by a split second@Daily Telegraph

THE main pool at the Australian Institute of Sport is unlike any other in Australia, and possibly everywhere else.

It comes with a golf cart, for one. An underwater camera is attached to the golf cart, not to search for stray Titleists but to videotape strokes, as in the swimming kind, as it goes up and down the pool.

Yet the great innovation is the "wet plate" starting block.

Hidden within the starting block is enough technology to send an ape into space or, in this case, record horizontal and vertical force, horizontal and vertical velocity, reaction time, the time between leaving the blocks and hitting the water, the angle and velocity on entering the water, the take-off angle, the entry size in the water surface ...

The technology is the brainchild of a Mr Bruce Mason, who was behind the famous computer-generated stick figures that appeared before the Australian Rugby League judiciary many moons ago, when Canberra's John Lomax and Quentin Pongia were ordered up after tackles deemed not entirely legal.

The stick figures were to indicate body movement, according to the science, to show how the tacklers had no option but to commit their sins. The judiciary listened earnestly, then suspended both men.

Clearly, Mr Mason is a man ahead of his time, which would suggest that moustaches are about to make a comeback. Regardless, Mr Mason's software has improved markedly since then.

"We're trying to get him to adjust three degrees on level of entry," Nugent says.

Every dive is as different as every individual, and every change is incremental.

Yesterday Australia's men's 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley relay teams finished a three-day relay camp at the AIS, much of it around the wet plate technology. The women's relay teams conclude their three-day camp today.

The advantage of the technology is revealed by freestyler Matt Targett, who Nugent describes as the best relay racer in the world. "We won our world championship (last year in Shanghai) by 0.14 of a second," Targett says. "If you broke down the time left on the block between the athletes, between ourselves and the French, the difference was the discipline on the blocks."

In other words, they swam practically the same times but Australia's better changeovers made the difference.

The relay squads are the soul of the Australian team.

"It's been since the Mean Machine, that was the start of making the relay a special event," Eamon Sullivan says.

"It showed the commitment, the four guys shaving their heads. That pride and tradition of the four-by-one has carried on through the years and now it's one of the most sought-after spots on the team, where it used to be that people didn't want to do it to ruin their individual events."

Nugent credits the change to later, when Don Talbot returned as head coach in 1989 and made relays a priority, culminating with Australia beating the US at the Pan-Pacs in 1995, the first time the Yanks had ever seen silver in the 4x100m free. Now, he says, all the swimmers see the importance of the relays.

"Usually," he says, "if you make one of the relay teams you're going to win a medal at the big event, which in this case is the Olympics."

And much of the hard work is not done in sweat, so much, as intellect.

For hours this week, Australia's swimmers swam the last 15m or so into the wall for their teammate to leave the blocks with what they hoped was the perfect changeover. They in turn swam out 15m before the video was analysed.

It was all done in real time; the vision picked up by the golf cart camera, relayed to a control room poolside and back to the big flatscreen to analyse. Enough figures popped up on screen to confuse everybody not versed in the language of high performance.

"It depends on body type," Nugent says. "Some are more powerful off the block, others are better body entry, others flow through the water better.

"You have ranges we know we need to be in."

Hadler watched them break down his dive after they called for the three degree adjustment. "He adjusted one-and-a-half degrees and then messed something else up underneath, because it's all different," Nugent says.

"Because of the momentum shift, they'll change something else under the water. He went in with a little bit flatter angle but then he kicked a lot later and ended up going deeper."

The difference is just hundredths of a second. A fraction in time with the power to change a life forever.

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