Auburn University’s Sport Biomechanics Lab helps Olympic athletes gain edge in the pool, on the track

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – As a lifelong sports enthusiast, Wendi Weimar will watch everything from soccer to gymnastics as athletes chase gold medal glory during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. As a scientist, however, Weimar will in all likelihood notice nuances imperceptible to the typical TV viewer.

Weimar, an associate professor and director of the Sport Biomechanics Lab in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, has worked with a number of Olympic athletes to refine their techniques and training methods to achieve faster times and better finishes. Several members of Auburn University’s 28-member Olympic contingent – comprised of 24 athletes and four coaches representing 13 countries – have enlisted Weimar’s assistance in recent years.

“I’ve been a sports fan my whole life, but the Olympics have taken on a new fervor for me,” Weimar said. “Not only am I rooting for the American athletes, but I’m also rooting for [Auburn University] athletes that I know.”

Weimar’s connections to former and current Olympians began several years ago when former Auburn swimming head coach and current U.S. Olympic team assistant David Marsh inquired as to whether she could help some of his swimmers improve their times. Marsh quickly saw value in developing a better understanding of sports biomechanics, the study of the body’s muscular, skeletal and joint actions.

“He asked us to work with them from a biomechanics and martial arts perspective,” Weimar said. “I took several of his swimmers and we worked on balance, breathing, fighting spirit and those types of things. We branched out more into biomechanics and took cameras into the pool and did in-the-water analysis with the swimmers and coaches.”

The fact that Marsh presented Weimar with several of Auburn’s national championship rings indicates the results were appreciated. USA Swimming even commissioned a study by Weimar that examined the approaches and “push-off” strategies employed by swimmers in making turns during races.

Weimar can identify imperfections in an athlete’s technique with the help of several tools, including a “force platform” embedded on a 44-foot walkway, a Vicon motion capture system with 10 high-resolution infrared video cameras, a digitizing system and an electromyography system that records the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. Such equipment enables Weimar and her graduate students to evaluate such things as an athlete’s balance and gait patterns, the “take-off” speed of a sprinter or the force exerted by a long-jumper. They can provide athlete-to-athlete comparisons or help develop personalized stretching and weight lifting programs aimed at transforming weaknesses into strengths.

In addition to helping competitors, the lab work also provides crucial experience for the students assisting Weimar.

“It’s an opportunity for my students to grow,” Weimar said. “They see and partake in the analysis of how you break a skill down and how you apply your knowledge from class to help someone move better.”

Understanding the functional roles of muscles can influence training procedures and result in athletes moving more efficiently and effectively.

Last year, Weimar worked with former Auburn sprinter Kerron Stewart and former Auburn hurdler and fellow 2012 Olympian Shamar Sands, among others.

“Kerron had some issues with her starts and we helped her there,” said Weimar, a former college field hockey player who became interested in biomechanics while recovering from a sports injury. “The biggest thing we look for are decrements in performance. Then we look for the reasons why it happens. We analyze their movements and try to identify what is preventing them from being more successful.”

Other beneficiaries of Weimar’s insights in recent years include Auburn and 2012 Olympic swimmers Tyler McGill, George Bovell, Cesar Cielo and Kirsty Coventry. Coventry, Bovell and Cielo each have Olympic medals to their credit. Weimar also worked with two-time U.S. Olympian and 2004 gold medalist Mark Gangloff, who narrowly missed qualifying for his third Summer Games appearance in June.

“They’re always impressed when we show them something that they didn’t realize was happening,” Weimar said. “Those guys are so in tune with their bodies and what they’re doing. They’re always appreciative of our help.”

A video segment and photographs are available on the Auburn University Office of Communications and Marketing website, http://ocm.auburn.edu/featured_story/olympic_athletes.html.

(Written by Troy Johnson.)

Contact: Troy Johnson, College of Education, (334) 844-4468 (ltj0001@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)