Kinesiology professor Scott McLean always watches the Olympics, but this year he will be watching them even more closely.
That’s because he had a small role in helping the U.S. Olympic bobsled team prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 12 in Vancouver, Canada.
McLean spent four days last spring working with the team in Park City Utah, the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. McLean’s work didn’t focus on the athletes, but rather on the sleds they will be driving – specifically the suspension on those sleds.
McLean was asked to go to Utah because he has a high-speed video camera that can shoot 300 frames per second, compared to 60 frames per second with a typical video camera. He normally uses the camera to help swimmers fine-tune their starts.
“It can pick up subtle aspects of movement much better,” he said.
McLean said the engineers who designed the sleds wanted more information on how the sleds were acting on tough turns, which are critical to success of a bobsled team.
“It is crucial that the blades stay in contact with the ice,” McLean explained. “That gives them more control and helps them maintain speed.”
McLean filmed the sleds as they went through the hardest turn on the course – a turn in which sleds can reach upwards of 85-90 miles per hour. He gave what he filmed to the designers in the evening, and they would work all night on fine-tuning the suspension and come back the next morning with something new.
“They were ecstatic to have the high-speed video,” McLean said. “In the past, they couldn’t see enough when they just had normal video.” By the end of the week, McLean said he could see a difference in the sleds.
McLean said both the men’s and women’s U.S. bobsleds teams have a good chance of winning a medal in the Winter Olympics this year, in part because of their superior sled designs.
“The U.S. sled is one of the top sleds in the world, if not the top one,” he said. McLean said officials from the U.S. bobsled team worked with designers from NASCAR to develop the sleds that will be used for the 2010 Olympics.
“These are not just blades on fiberglass,” he said. “They are very advanced, sophisticated machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars.”
This is the second time McLean has worked with members of a U.S. Olympic Team. In 2008, he spent a week working with the U.S. Olympic swim team at their training camp at Stanford University. That work focused on helping the swimmers improve their starts.
Both opportunities opened up because a graduate school friend of McLean’s, Peter Vint, is now high-performance director for the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Performance Division. His job is to provide technical support to a variety of the U.S. teams, and to do this, he has begun to supplement his technical team by drawing upon outside expertise.
“My involvement with this was purely by circumstance, but it was fun,” McLean said. He even got a chance to do a run in a bobsled piloted by 2002 bronze medal driver and current USA Bobsled coach Brian Shimer. “The G forces were so strong I couldn’t even lift my head,” he said.