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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 By Mark SappenfieldStaff writer / August 10, 2008

Michael Phelps broke his own world record and captured a gold medal in the men’s 400m individual medley swimming final Sunday.

Adrees Latif/Reuters

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Beijing

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.

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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.

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.”

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