Venture upon the flume, a futuristic swimming treadmill at the International Center for Aquatic Research (ICAR) in Colorado Springs, and you might think you've entered the Twilight Zone. The four-story-high structure looks like a NASA space capsule set atop an enormous glazed doughnut. Climb the stairs, open the door, and you're apt to see an aspiring Olympian butterflying in a minipool. Today, the tank. Tomorrow, Barcelona.
The flume is the latest weapon in the sports technology battle. Built by U.S. Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, with profits from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and completed in 1988, it's the $1.1 million cornerstone of the $3 million ICAR. The high-tech research center comes complete with mission control, which is staffed seven days a week by some 30 employees who analyze swimmers' fitness levels, strength, endurance and stroke efficiency. Technicians perform tests on respiratory, blood, muscle and endocrine functions during an athlete's workout, and monitor the athlete from the flume's top deck and from windows that surround the tank. As the analysts watch and record, the athlete strokes against the current.
The swimming tank is fed by a 50,000-gallon current that rushes as fast as three meters per second and courses through the massive apparatus. The tank itself is in a special room that can be acclimatized to match a wide range of weather and physical conditions—8,000-foot elevation, for example, or sea level; a pleasant 65° day or a 100° scorcher.
So what does all of this technology add up to? First, and perhaps foremost, it provides feedback on the effects of pace, altitude and temperature on a swimmer. And it helps forestall overtraining. "Sports science can confirm that a coach is doing the right thing," says John Troup, director of sports medicine and science for U.S. Swimming and the designer of the ICAR flume.
It's also a teaching aid. "The flume has helped me with fine-tuning and to make minor changes," says Janet Evans, triple gold medalist in Seoul and the top U.S. qualifier for Barcelona in the women's 400- and 800-meter freestyles. "If your coaches are there to remind you [of the test results] and you're thinking about them often enough in the pool, it does help."
Some swimmers and coaches, however, are skeptical. Nancy Hogshead, for one, says, "I don't know how much it's going to change the elite athlete's stroke." But then Hogshead, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter freestyle, competed in the pre-flume era.
So too did Mark Spitz, who tried the flume during his unsuccessful comeback attempt last year. However, Spitz, 42, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics, describes his one flume experience as "the neatest thing I ever did." Neat, yes, but Spitz says, "There are people who spend too much time analyzing data. If you're a great swimmer, you had a great coach or you were in a great program."
Doc Counsilman, the legendary former Indiana coach, agrees with Spitz, a former pupil: "The flume is a nice toy to play with, but its practical application is yet to be realized. It doesn't take the flume to make a great swimmer."
Ah, but who would deny that the flume has helped Joey Hudepohl? Hudepohl, the 18-year-old freestyle phenom who took the U.S. Olympic trials by storm in March, winning the 200-meter freestyle, is an uncontestable flume success story. Five weeks before the trials. Jack Simon, Hudepohl's coach, put his charge in the flume in hopes of pinpointing "something in Joey's stroke I didn't like, but that I couldn't put my finger on." After one session the elusive flaw, a pitch change in Hudepohl's stroke, was discovered. Simon credits the flume with helping coach an athlete to remain focused on training, while also identifying a technical flaw.
Hudepohl is one of 40 U.S. swimmers headed for Barcelona, a group touted as the best U.S. Olympic team ever assembled. Each of the swimmers has hit the flume this past training season. If the Americans win big in Spain, experts will remain divided as to how much they were helped by the flume. But all will certainly agree that it didn't hurt.