Canada turns to ‘swimlytics’
‘Game-changer’ sensor collects data that fuels swimmers’ need for speed
Wearable technology designed to help Penny Oleksiak swim even faster was unveiled Thursday at an Own The Podium sport science and technology summit in Calgary.
It looks similar to a Garmin or Fitbit worn on the wrist, but a lot more data is extrapolated, crunched and analyzed from the accelerometer within it. Yes, “swimlytics” is here. “Swimlytics is what we call the system because it’s about swimmers, it’s about swimming and it’s data analytics,” said Dr. John Barden, a University of Regina associate professor in kinesiology and creator of the technology.
“We’re taking data from the sensor, sending it to a server and we’re doing more processing, more analysis of that data outside the sensor itself.”
The new technology wasn’t far enough along for Canada’s swim team to make full use of it prior to the Summer Games in Rio in August.
Canadian women still produced six medals in the pool. Oleksiak, a 16-year-old from Toronto, won freestyle gold, butterfly silver and swam the anchor legs for a pair of relay bronze.
“Swimming Canada is fully engaged in this project,” Own The Podium chief executive officer Anne Merklinger said.
“It will be a game-changer for swimming.
“What this helps coaches gather is data. The more data we can give them that’s valuable and practical really helps athletes eventually get on the podium.”
University of Calgary swimmers Rob Hill of North Vancouver, B.C., and Peter Brothers of Victoria wore the sensors in a workout on Thursday. Barden then took the sensors to a conference room to demonstrate data analysis.
Hill has already worn the sensor half a dozen times in the pool.
Data analysis tells him how to make his stroke more powerful and efficient and also when his stroke breaks down during a hard set or session in the pool.
He believes the information has made him faster.
“I’d like to think so. I’d like to think stroke correction is a big deal,” Hill said.
Early incarnations of the technology had swimmers wearing several sensors on their bodies. Barden knew the device had to become streamlined and lightweight or the swimmers wouldn’t want to wear it.
“It’s pretty minimal,” Brothers observed. “I don’t notice the weight of it or it dragging through the water.”
The 20-year-old still wasn’t convinced he would wear it “every single metre of every single day, but integrating it into workouts would not be a bad thing if we can learn a lot from it.
“I know very well that a few tenths (of a second) can make a big difference from making a team and not making a team.”
Financing for the project came from Innovations for Gold, formerly known as Top Secret.
It’s Canada’s $2-million sport science and technology program funded half by taxpayers and the other half through corporate sponsorships.
The innovations are often first seen at OTP’s annual tech summit that draws people in high-performance sport from across the country.
Care is taken not to reveal proprietary information that other countries could copy.
“Right now, we’re showing the general application,” Merklinger said.
“What’s behind the scenes is very sophisticated in terms of how they got to the point of being able to acquire the data and analyze it.
“No one else is doing this and we’ve been pretty sensitive to try and make sure we are only sharing what we can.”
Led by Toronto teenage prodigy Penny Oleksiak, the Canadian swim team pulled off the shocker of the 2016 Summer Olympics by winning six medals when most prognosticators — including this one — predicted none.
Swimming Canada hopes to add to that total at the 2020 Tokyo Games, with help from a new technology called Swimlytics. Think Moneyball or advanced hockey stats, only for the pool.
“This is a game changer for Canada,” Anne Merklinger, chief executive of Own The Podium, told reporters Thursday at a gathering of top sports scientists and researchers in Calgary. “We’re not going to tell you everything about it, because we want to protect our competitive advantage.”
To use Swimlytics, athletes wear an accelerometer — which looks like a watch — on their wrists during training sessions. The device spits out a mountain of data, including stroke length and turn speed.
With that information, swimmers can learn where they are losing valuable time to the thousandth of a second.
“If it can tell me when my stroke breaks down, when I become less efficient in the water, then I can work on improving that,” University of Calgary Dinos swimmer Peter Brothers said after trying out the device Thursday morning. “As you get faster, it’s harder to maintain the same stroke length and power. So if we use that technology to further improve that, it will be a big advantage.”
The federal government and the private sector invest a combined $2 million annually in the Innovations for Gold program — formerly known as Top Secret — to fund science and technology projects like Swimlytics.
TRADING BIKE FOR SKIS
Georgia Simmerling developed a detailed game plan for 10 precious days off before the upcoming World Cup ski cross tour.
On the itinerary: family dinners, walks at the beach, yoga classes and many hours of sleep.
While some of Canada’s medallists at the 2016 Rio Games are just easing back into the gym now, Simmerling jumped off her bike and snapped on her skis with no time to waste in chasing down the next goal.
The 27-year-old Vancouver native won cycling bronze in the team pursuit in Rio, and now she’s hot after an Olympic medal at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. A proper holiday can wait. “I have my sights set on 2018,” she told Postmedia in a recent interview. “So if I wanted to race this season, I had to get right back on snow.”
The day after winning bronze in Rio, Simmerling dutifully reported for a scheduled cardio and upper-body workout.
A month later, she flew to Europe for a five-week training camp with the ski cross team. After 20 months away from the mountain, she felt like a raw rookie — especially since she hadn’t raced ski cross since breaking her wrist in seven places at the 2015 world championships.
Simmerling is the only Canadian to have competed at three separate Olympic Games in three different sports (alpine skiing in 2010, ski cross in 2014 and track cycling in 2014.)