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Professor Helps Olympic Swimmers Start Faster

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    Scott McLean stands with a banner that members of the U.S. Olympic Swim Team signed for him.

The Beijing Olympics provided an opportunity for a Southwestern kinesiology professor to expand his research.

Scott McLean, associate professor of kinesiology, spent a week working with the U.S. Olympic swim team at their training camp at Stanford University just before they left for Beijing. Along with colleagues from the United States Olympic Training Center and Arizona State University, McLean helped the Olympic swimmers improve their starting performance.

Using video and a starting block instrumented with sensors to measure the forces produced by the hands and feet, McLean and his colleagues were able to provide the swimmers with critical information about their start performance. “We were able to give them instantaneous feedback on what technique modifications produced the best starts,” he said.

McLean said a number of the swimmers were able to achieve faster speeds with improved trajectories, which corresponded to increased start distances of 10-15 centimeters. “In races that are often decided by hundredths of a second, getting 10-15 centimeters farther out on the start is huge,” he said.

Swimmers McLean had a chance to work with included Dara Torres, the 41-year-old mother who won two medals at the games, as well as several current and former University of Texas swimmers who competed in the games.

“Dara was one of our big success stories,” McLean said. “At the Olympic Trials, it appeared that her start needed some work. She was lifting her head too high and not doing enough with her lower body. By adjusting her head position and her arm position, we were able to improve her speed off the block without negatively affecting her trajectory.  She swam nearly two-tenths of a second faster at the Olympic Games. We like to think that we had a hand in that.”

In all, McLean and his colleagues worked with about two-thirds of the U.S. Olympic swim team. The swimmers thanked McLean by signing a large Olympic banner for him, which he has framed and hung in his office.

“This experience was the highlight of my professional career,” McLean said. “It brought together everything I have worked on for the past 15 years.”

McLean plans to spend his sabbatical next spring working on a newer design of the instrumented starting block that is more economical and more portable. “Eventually I would like to be prepared to go to a pool and set it up when a coach calls,” he said.

Kas Kramer, a senior kinesiology major at Southwestern, is helping McLean with his research as part of her capstone project.

In the meantime, McLean is bringing this new technology to the Southwestern swim program, where he is working with each swimmer to develop his/her best start.

“The swim team here at Southwestern benefits greatly from Dr. McLean’s research,” said interim co-coach Nicole Kaupp. “It is great to have someone with his expertise working with our swimmers on a daily basis.”