The science behind an Olympic swimmer

November 2000: Aquatic Facility Design and Management  Credit: Allsport
With the countdown to Sydney ticking away, many of Americas elite swimmers and their coaches are doing all they can to ensure a gold medal. Like so many sports, technology is playing a big role in the process. Athletes are looking for legal ways to shave fractions of a second off of their times.

The United States has spent millions of dollars on two high-tech devices that are being used by some of Americas best swimmers to gain that small advantage.

The Flume

The Flume is one of the largest and most expensive training devices in the world. Housed in the United States Swimming's International Center for Aquatic Research at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo, the Flume stands four stories tall and was built in 1984 at a cost of $1.2 million.

Like a swimming treadmill, the Flume directs a steady flow of water at the athlete at speeds of 0 to 2.5 meters per second. This allows an athlete to swim at up to world-record pace while being closely monitored by the Flumes many cameras. In addition to the steady water flow, the Flume also has a built-in pressure chamber that allows them to adjust the altitude from sea level to 7,000 feet.

"The Flume holds 55,000 gallons of water," said U.S. Swimming Director of Biomechanics Scott Riewald. "The athletes go into a chamber that is 15 feet long and 6 feet wide. It is designed that way to ensure that the water is flowing at the same speed."

Who said training for the Oylmpics would be a joyride? The small chamber is exactly why 50-meter backstroke American record holder B.J. Bedford would rather stay out of the Flume.

"I feel like a trapped gerbil on a ferris wheel when I am in there," Beford said. "I have never enjoyed anytime in the Flume."

Although it may not be the most enjoyable experience, there are some definite benefits to using the Flume.

"It isnt used much as a training tool. There have been some swimmers that have done high intensity short workouts in it," Riewald said. "We use it more as an analysis tool. We can do passive-drag tests on swim suits, and can take video of the swimmers and then digitized their strokes to help them improve specific areas."

Swimmers who arent the lucky chosen few to be training in Boulder can improvise in order to get Olympic-like results.

A simple towing machine can give you the same effect as you get in the Flume," said Jarod Schroeder, who is a member of the USA Resident Swimming team.

Schroeder also pointed out that some underwater tracking cameras and and a good coach can help.


The Aquapacer is a training device designed to assist in the training of swimmers and to regulate their strokes throughout any training set. It is pre-programmed with split times, stroke rate, rest intervals and the number of repeats the swimmer is doing. This is all transmitted through audio cues that the device gives out to the swimmer as they are performing their workout. The device is simply strapped onto the athletes goggles or worn under the swimmers cap.

Aquapacer was first introduced in Scotland in 1998 after five years of research. The company, Challenge and Response Ltd., also recently launched another version of the product called the Aquapacer SOLO. The product has many of the same functions of the Aquapacer, but at a more affordable price.

Age-group swimmers in the UK were the first to use the product, but as the product developed and got publicity, elite athletes started to become interested in using it in their training.

Peter Banks is the coach of 1996 Olympic 800-meter freestyle gold medalist Brooke Bennett. He feels that the Aquapacer has been a good addition to Brookes training program.

"I have seen dramatic improvements," said Banks, who is the USA Women's Team Coach for the 2000 World Short Course Championships. "Brooke's training is now based on stroke rate using the Aquapacer."

Coaches are not the only ones that have been pleased with the results.

"I like it. Swimming with the Aquapacer somehow makes it easier to do the times," said Ian Thorpe, the 1998 world champion in the 400-meter freestyle.

Elite athletes have liked the results that they are seeing, and many want to use the Aquapacer in competition. It hasnt been a big issue in swimming because of the strict guidelines about using pacing devices.

The sport of triathlon has been dealing with the issue of allowing athletes to use the Aquapacer in competition. USA Triathlon has given its approval for use of the Aquapacer in competition, but the ITU (International Triathlon Union) has banned it from competition until further review.

"We do not advocate that it is used in competition," said Patrick Miley, the founder and inventor of the Aquapacer. "I have seen it used that way and it gives a far greater advantage than any suit or any drug."

Discuss This Article