Attention to details can mean an Olympic medal

Olympic swimmer Jevon Atkinson, who represented Jamaica in the 2008 Olympics, grabs the starting block handles to steady his body. Muscles taut, he prepares to dive. Dr. Scott McLean, professor of kinesiology at Southwestern University, gives the signal, and the swimmer propels his body forward. Back at poolside, Dr. McLean asks Jevon to evaluate his takeoff. He then turns to student interns Ashley Moulder and Arianna Weeks, both majoring in kinesiology, for their opinion. They agree that it was a pretty good start. The interns record comments and other data. Not only are they learning how to conduct biomechanics research, but they’re also keeping in touch with the human side of competitive athletics.

“Working with an elite athlete was amazing,” Arianna observes. “I gained a tremendous appreciation for the amount of control these athletes have over their bodies, control that was learned from hours and hours of practice.” Now that practice can be refined and its results augmented by Dr. McLean’s work in biomechanics.

Jevon steps back on the starting block for another dive. This process is repeated many times. Because world records and Olympic medals are determined by hundredths of a second, the tedium of perfecting the start of a swimming race can mean the difference between winning gold and silver, making McLean’s expertise vital.

Scott McLean swam for the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, where he studied physics and became interested in biomechanics, the application of physics and engineering to the study of human movement. He furthered his studies at Arizona State University, specializing in swimming biomechanics.

After receiving a PhD in exercise science, Dr. McLean studied performance elements of swimming, including swimsuit design and the mechanics of the swim start. He is currently investigating the effect of new block designs on start performance. Central to Dr. McLean’s work is a motion analysis system that records and tracks the body’s movements.

Analyzing Joshua's dive

In addition to working with swimmers at Southwestern, Dr. McLean has used his expertise with USA Swimming and the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Dr. McLean recalls working with Olympian Dana Torres: “At the 2008 pre-Olympic training camp for the US swim team, we were fortunate to work with Dara Torres on her start. She told us, ‘Guys, if you can give me two tenths of a second, I can give you a gold medal.’ With important changes in her start, Torres swam nineteen hundredths of a second faster in the Beijing Olympics than her Olympic trials time, missing the gold medal by one hundredth of a second. While we can’t take credit for her amazing performance, we do like to think we contributed a small part.”

Assisted by Ashley and Arianna and collegiate swimmers, Dr. McLean continues to research starting block designs. One important insight that Ashley has gained while interning with Dr. McLean is to expect incremental improvements and ongoing analysis. She’s learned that effective researchers persevere “even though you may not get the results that you are looking for. . . . You have to look at the results with no preconceived ideas so you can interpret the results without bias.”

As Dr. McLean evaluates each starting block, he will provide expert analysis to the swimmers participating in the study. Dr. McLean believes that Jevon Atkinson has already made some measurable improvements to his start time, which should translate into improved race times. In August, Jevon will compete for Jamaica in the Commonwealth Games in Scotland. By incorporating these changes, he hopes to reach his goal of again swimming for his country in the 2016 Olympic Games.

In addition to conducting swimming research, Dr. McLean stays in touch with the sport by continuing to coach. He has volunteered as an assistant coach at Southwestern since 2002 and has been involved with the Aquadillos program in town for nine years.

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