The Olympic Games Rio 2016 are upon us, and many viewers and fans alike are eager to watch their favorite athletes compete. At Southwestern, one summer research group in particular is looking forward to watching the swim competitions. This trio includes Justin Broussard, Class of 2017, Emma Albin, Class of 2017, and Professor of Kinesiology Scott McLean, who have been researching the dolphin kick this summer.

“Swimming is one of the events I’ve watched a lot in the past, but this year I’ll definitely be following it a lot closer (I already have!),” says Albin. “I feel like I’ve picked up a lot about the sport of swimming from spending so much time by the pool and with swimmers this summer.”

McLean also follows swimmers closely, and is friends with National Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist, Neil Walker, who once said, “The future of swimming is underwater.” This has since resonated with McLean, and perhaps even served as inspiration to investigate that notion further.

“This acknowledges that underwater dolphin kicking is rapidly becoming one of the most important parts of a race,” says McLean. “Anecdotally, the best swimmers in the sport are rapidly becoming the best dolphin kickers.”

These trends are what McLean and his team are exploring. He says there is limited research published regarding this technique, and the little that there is has focused on computer simulations of the kick to understand the mechanisms of propulsion.

“To our knowledge, no work has examined the patterns of coordination in dolphin kicking and how these patterns of coordination develop with age and experience,” says McLean. “Therefore, the purpose of our study is to examine the segmental and joint movements involved in dolphin kicking across a wide age range and a wide level of skills.”

The team is using a video-based motion analysis system to track swimmers in action. They attach waterproof lights to the swimmer’s “body landmarks” of interest (ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, etc.), and the software tracks the movement of the lights frame by frame (60 frames per second).  

“After that digitization process we end up with a digitized stick figure of the trial and the program is able to pull a lot of different numerical data for us to analyze,” says Albin. “The program gives us a huge amount of data, so one of our next steps is to decide what specific data we want to use, and we’ll do this by looking for patterns.”

“The dolphin kick serves as a perfect movement to demonstrate a fundamental movement pattern,” says Broussard. “You can use one movement to breakdown a variety of other human movements.”

Broussard says the research process has been eye-opening, challenging, and rewarding.

“Conducting research on participants has improved my communication skills with new people,” says Broussard. “This research significantly improved my computer skills by allowing me to practice using a variety of different software programs.”

The research experience is also extremely instrumental for Albin, who minoring in math and plans to pursue biomechanics in graduate school.

“I feel so lucky and thankful that I am getting research experience under my belt as an undergrad,” says Albin. “Undergrad research in general isn’t very common, and especially kinesiology research.”

Their work will continue into the fall semester, and will result in the students co-authoring a journal article with Professor McLean. The group will also present at the Texas Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in March, with the possibility of presenting at a national conference, as well.

For now, the focus turns to the Olympics, with hopes of catching the world’s best swimmers performing the dolphin kick.

“Michael Phelps is obviously great,” says McLean. “One story that showed up at Olympic trials was Ryan Lochte’s use of the dolphin kick in the 200 freestyle.  If you watch the video of his races, he uses a dolphin kick on his back off of the last turn which really propels him to the front of the pack. It’s pretty amazing to watch in the race.”