The Future of Competition

Troy Flanagan, high-performance director for the U.S. Ski Team, holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. That’s right, a rocket scientist. Flanagan’s job is to brainstorm new methods and training techniques to make U.S. athletes stronger and faster. Flanagan sees great potential in two emerging fields of research—microtechnology and nanotechnology—to maximize the athletic feats of future Olympians and World Cup competitors.

SKI › Tell us about microtechnology and how it could improve performance.

TF › There is a lot of work being done now on microsensors that can be mounted on equipment and people. For instance, the sensors that track where jet airplanes are when flying around the globe have been miniaturized to the size of your fingernail. These sensors could be placed on skis to analyze their positions in space, check the angles against the snow, monitor speed and acceleration. You could then mathematically model how the next skiers should come down the course, how their lines could be improved, and, yes, therefore their times. Mathematical modeling could indicate the fastest way to the bottom of the hill.

SKI › How would microsensors be used on the bodies of athletes?

TF › They would allow us to precisely monitor the biomechanics of competitors. You could see the angles of their joints and why they are not achieving their highest velocities. The goal is to optimize their body position and technique. These sensors could give athletes feedback in real time by audio.

SKI › Could these devices improve athletic fitness?

TF › Absolutely. Researchers have developed tiny plastic strips that have microscopic needles that take mosquitobite- size samples of blood. These blood samples provide a snapshot of what’s happening inside the body. The idea is to look for fatigue variables, blood markers that tell us how close the athlete is to exhaustion. This stuff is not 75 years away because we are already working on it. But instead of these mosquitobite strips, the sensors would be implanted in the athletes.

SKI › How could nanotechnology make ski racers faster?

TF › Nanotechnology is essentially the study of manipulating matter at an atomic or molecular scale, working with incredibly small particles that are between one and 100 nanometers. Currently nanotech is used in automobiles to reduce friction in engines. In skiing, we would look for ways to coat the bottoms of skis with particles to reduce friction. Nanotech could also be used in skin suits to reduce friction and improve aerodynamics.

SKI › What other ideas do you see coming from the aerospace industry?

TF › Aerospace engineers use systems analysis to predict the performance of helicopters on missions, for instance. One idea I’ve come out with is that we use artificial intelligence to analyze athletic performance. Now we have coaches and trainers who manage and analyze all the information that is coming from athletes. We could have smart systems analysis that tells us how to best train the athletes to optimize their fitness and performance.

SKI › Have we nearly reached the limits of human performance?

TF › No. People have been asking that question for ages, but all the athletic records that seem unbeatable are being beaten. That’s not going to change, as I think we are a long way from reaching the plateau of athletic performance. That’s because we still have so much to learn about how the human body fatigues. There is a lot written in the scientific literature now about body fatigue and performance, and it’s almost alarming what we really don’t know. We are just starting to understand the human body.

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