Jump higher, swim faster: Olympians blast past old barriers

Athletes are pushing their bodies to new limits, setting times never before recorded, and wringing from a few frantic airborne seconds a new twist or turn that previous generations thought fantastical.

By , Staff writer

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    Michael Phelps broke his own world record and captured a gold medal in the men’s 400m individual medley swimming final Sunday.
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The assault has already begun. Two days in the Water Cube and three world records have fallen, American Michael Phelps and Australian Stephanie Rice shaving entire seconds off the previous marks.

It is as much a part of the Olympics as gold medals: athletes pushing their bodies to new limits, setting times never before recorded, or wringing from a few frantic airborne seconds a new twist or turn that previous generations thought fantastical.

Today, it is the gymnasts’ turn as they take to the floor in the men’s team event. A new scoring system will only encourage teams to ratchet up the difficulty of their routines.

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For Olympians, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – faster, higher, stronger – is not merely a motto, it is a job requirement.

“Twenty years ago, nobody thought we’d be doing the things we do today,” says Laura Wilkinson, winner of the platform diving gold at the 2000 Sydney Games and a Beijing Olympian.

The pressure to push the boundaries of performance is sometimes applied by the sport itself.

Since the 2004 Games in Athens, gymnastics has adopted a scoring system that rewards athletes with a higher degree of difficulty. The goal, officials say, is to lessen the element of partiality in judging, basing scores more on the technical, measurable aspects of a performance – much as figure skating has done.

More often, however, the drive comes from the best of the world’s best athletes. Their quest for gold is often synonymous with a desire to leave an even more indelible mark on their sports – a world record or a pirouetting piece of history that will forever bear their name.

Sunday, the United States men’s swim team smashed their own 4x100 meter freestyle world record, qualifying for the finals in a time of 3:12.23, which overshadowed their time of 3:12.46 set in 2006.

And more records are expected to fall.

“We’re trying to top what everyone else is doing,” says Kate Hooven, a member of the US synchronized swimming team.
She and her teammates are going to extraordinary lengths to accomplish it.

Circus school

Two times a week, they have attended circus school in the Bay Area of California, constructing their intricate underwater pyramids on dry land, overseen by men and women with Play-Doh spines and a more flexible opinion of what the human body can accomplish.

“I never knew I could do a handstand with my head between my legs,” says team member Janet Culp with undisguised wonder.

That is the point. “If you look at the girls we’re competing against, they all have a background in gymnastics,” says Culp. “That’s not true for me ... I’m always looking for ways to be more flexible.”

The goal of working with circus performers is to do “anything that looks dangerous,” she says. Adds Hooven: “It gives us a competitive edge in that we can do unique choreography and lifts.”

For other athletes, new and slightly less exotic tools have allowed them to fine-tune their performances to a degree never before imaginable. Diver Laura Wilkinson’s most difficult dive involves completing 3-1/2 twisting somersaults in two seconds. To perfect it, she uses a software program to superimpose images of her practice dives over a perfect model, noting the exact moments when she made mistakes.

“It’s a lot of technical sort of physics,” she says. “And sometimes it is completely different from what is instinctual.”
Even for Olympic athletes, diving off a 33-foot tower inspires some instinct for self-preservation.

Habits establish a comfort zone, even if they are incorrect. Breaking them according to video analysis “is uncomfortable, because you don’t trust yourself,” says Wilkinson. “But you try to understand why something works and then apply that to what you do.”

Tailored techniques

This level of sophistication has allowed coaches increasingly to tailor training techniques to the needs of each individual athlete.

“People are figuring out ways to push themselves more – how to work with their specific body type,” says Olympic swimmer Ben Wildman-Tobriner, a member of Sunday’s world-record breaking relay team.

For gymnast Sean Golden, who won the floor exercise at the US Olympic trials but failed to make the Beijing team, it meant an anatomy lesson.

Before the new scoring system came into being, he made four tumbling passes during his floor routine.

Now he makes six. It is a one minute and 10-second shoehorn, packing as many elements as he can into the program without invoking a multi-limbed mutiny.

His solution was to learn more about the muscles that did the work during his floor routines, and then to restructure his training regimen to target them.

“I can’t go run a mile, because that doesn’t build up fast-twitch muscles,” says Golden.

The first step toward overcoming the limitations of his own muscles, however, begins in his own head, he says: “We’re limited by our thoughts.”

Olympic swimmer and 100-meter breaststroke world-record holder Brendan Hansen agrees. Within three years of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, 16 other people had done it, he notes. “It is believing that you can do it,” he says.

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Gymnasts' new scoring system

The perfect 10 is no more.

As they did with figure skating, the International Gymnastics Federation has devised a new scoring system for gymnastics in a bid to stamp out any hint of favoritism.

The idea is to reward those gymnasts who have a higher degree of difficulty, placing more weight on the impartial measure of skills accomplished. To do this, the gymnasts’ scores have been split in two.

One score is based upon how well the gymnast executes the skills in his or her routine. This score has a maximum value of 10, and it is called the “B” score. This is, in essence, the old “perfect 10.”

The second score is a number that reflects the difficulty of the routine. Each skill is assigned a certain value based on its difficulty, with more-difficult skills worth more points. The accumulation of all the skills in a routine yields the start value for the “A” score. If the skill is completed the points are awarded.

US gymnast Nastia Liukin, for example, has an uneven-bars routine with a start difficulty value of 7.7, tied for the highest in the world. So if she performs the routine flawlessly, she will have an “A” score of 7.7 points and a “B” score of 10 points, yielding an unbeatable total score of 17.7.

– M.S.

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