A fluid mechanics professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute played a part in refining the strokes and kicks of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swim Team, which won three gold medals in Beijing on Tuesday.
Using digital monitoring technology to study the flow of water around submerged bodies, RPI professor Timothy Wei spent the past five years working with Olympic athletes and coaches to help develop techniques that shave milliseconds off swim times.
“It’s really been getting them to visually see and understand how the motion of the feet or arm translates into the forces the swimmers generate,” said Wei, who also heads the Troy college’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering.
At the U.S. Olympic Team’s training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Wei studied the eddies created by swimmers’ movements and ways they can be harnessed for the sake of speed.
Wei’s research provided the “foundation for which every technical stroke change” was made in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, U.S. Swim Coach Sean Hutchinson said. It proved especially helpful in refining the technique of Margaret Hoelzer, who set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke at the U.S. swimming trials in July, he said. On Tuesday, she won a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke.
“Basically you’re at a point where it’s all about technique,” said Wei, who started teaching at RPI in January 2006. He is the acting dean of its School of Engineering.
Wei’s Olympic involvement started in 2003 while he was teaching at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers mechanical engineering student and swimmer Erin McIntyre proposed doing her senior thesis on the biomechanics of swimming.
It was McIntyre’s interest in that project that brought Wei together with Hutchinson and U.S. Swim Team Biomechanics Manager Russell Mark.
After investigating whether scientists could measure the flow of water around a swimmer in a Rutgers pool, Wei went to Colorado Springs to continue that research with the help of 1996 gold medalist swimmer Beth Botsford.
Within two years, he studied the flow measurements of four other swimmers. One of them, 2000 Olympic gold medalist Megan Jendrick, finished fifth in the 100-meter breaststroke in Beijing.
“This is stuff that’s directly translatable by a coach,” Wei said.
Along with studying swimmers’ flow measurements, Wei also studied the forces generated by their movements. But coaches last September stopped modifying swimmers’ techniques based on Wei’s research because it takes about a year for athletes to completely adjust to such changes.
The RPI professor expects to meet with U.S. Swim Team coaches over the next two months to discuss improving the flow measurement techniques in preparation for the 2012 London Olympics. In fall, he also plans to begin working with the U.S. Olympic Skeleton Team, whose flow measurements will be studied in a wind tunnel.