Canada turns to ‘swim­lyt­ics’

‘Game-changer’ sen­sor col­lects data that fu­els swim­mers’ need for speed

Calgary Herald - - CITY - DONNA SPENCER

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.


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.)


Penny Olek­siak, here af­ter win­ning gold and set­ting a new Olympic record in the women’s 100-me­tre freestyle in Rio, is now armed with wear­able tech­nol­ogy de­signed to help her swim even faster.


Univer­sity of Cal­gary Di­nos swim­mer Rob Hill wears a body-fixed sen­sor on his wrist that will an­a­lyze his per­for­mance.

VICKI HALL In Cal­gary

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