Can Ai Transform Swimming?
Over the past few decades, swim coaches have been using technology to detect and fix flaws in their swimmers’ techniques. Competitive swimming is hard to excel at due to its non-uniform nature. One of the key skills of the sport is being able to reduce drag through good form. However, due to athletes’ different body types and muscle masses, there is no single “perfect technique” that works best for everyone. Swimming is an evolving sport; every few years, a coach will claim to have developed a new tweak that will increase efficiency. Devices such as underwater cameras and sensors help highlight areas of one’s stroke that need improvement, making it a useful tool for coaches across the world.
Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas (Dr. G) is one of the most well-known coaches to implement technology in swimming. Dr. G, USA Swimming’s director of sports science and physiology, has worked with 55 Olympians, including the renowned 5-time Olympian and 28-time Olympic medalist, Michael Phelps. In his GST Swim Power Testing, Dr. G uses underwater footage accompanied with measurements of velocity, force, acceleration, and power to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each phase in a swimmer’s stroke cycle and provide tips and drills to improve one’s stroke technique.
Now, developers are implementing artificial intelligence to analyze stroke technique. Kannan Dorairaj, the father of an 11-year-old swimmer, founded Aspiricx in October 2017. Aspiricx is an AI company that explores athletes’ potentials and encourages them to compete against their potential selves. With the help of 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin and her husband Ethan Hall, another elite swimmer, Aspiricx is currently developing two products that claim to be “path-breaking” in the field of sports science. The first product, LaneVision, is expected to be released soon. Similar to Dr. G’s GST power test, it tracks lap splits, stroke rate, distance per cycle, underwater speed, and other metrics to “create a model for your ideal swimming stroke.” The second, StrokeVision, uses camera equipment to 3D scan one’s body and use that data to provide advice for technique improvements. It is expected to be available in August.
Of course, technology in swimming has existed for a while. In the early 2000s, sports scientists developed high-tech suits, with laser bonded seams and hydrophobic coating that compressed muscles and allowed swimmers to become more streamlined and lean in the water. The research and experimentation in racing suits increased at a rapid pace until 2010, when FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation) outlawed full-body polyurethane racing suits, which aided tremendously in buoyancy and performance. Since then, swimsuit companies have still been developing faster suits that adhere to FINA’s regulations without disrupting the “athleticism” of the sport.
In the past few months, USA Swimming has attempted to address the unfairness that accompanies high-tech suits. The Age Group Development Committee has expressed its support for a ban on these “tech suits” for swimmers under the age of 12. High-quality tech suits often retail for over $300, and need to be replaced every few months. For many families, this is not a practical investment for their young children. Young swimmers covet these tech suits, especially those worn by Olympians they look up to. Tech suits hold such a high value for them, who view such swimsuits as effective as hard work invested in training and believe tech suits to be necessary to their success. More often than not, this leads to an unhealthy culture in the sport that revolves around privilege and money.
With the addition of AI products into this sport, the same issue appears. Like the high-tech polyurethane racing suits, these new AI devices can only be afforded by extremely wealthy families, giving lower-income swimmers a disadvantage. Money and technology are replacing the skill and hard work that lay behind successful swimming.
Written by Angelina Zhang, Edited by Jack Vasquez & Alexander Fleiss