Team Canada's gold medal secrets

The projects that will shape their performance: sleep therapy, concussion research and, yes, beetroot

Gold medal secrets

Photograph by Chris Bolin

As a midfielder on the Canadian women’s Olympic soccer team, Desiree Scott ranges some 11 km during a game, sometimes at a lope, often with explosive sprints and violent course changes. She can run, but she can’t hide. For games and practices in recent months, Scott and every member of the team have been fitted with global positioning system (GPS) units and heart monitors allowing coach John Herdman to measure their speed, field sense, efficiency and fitness levels. “Before there were large fitness gaps in our team, now we’re closing in on each other,” says Scott. “Come the Olympics, we’ll be good to go.”

Those and other measures of performance and endurance are part of Herdman’s push to take the team from good to great, as he puts it. That same ethos drives Own the Podium (OTP), the sports funding agency that helped power Canada to an Olympic record of 15 gold medals at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. The agency’s strategy is evolving, but it has lost none of its swagger; none of its single-minded purpose to provide the best athletes in the most medal-worthy sports with the best coaching, support and innovation. “Vancouver changed our country. We’re a prouder, bolder, more confident, healthier nation than we were,” says Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium. “We have a new attitude. An attitude around winning.”

Behind every Canadian athlete—or at least those with the potential to win medals—is an OTP-funded team of doctors, scientists, engineers, administrators, therapists, gadget freaks and even an intelligence agent or two doing what they can to help Canada reach its goal of a top-12 position in the Olympic medal count among some 200 countries at the London Games, and a top-eight finish at the Paralympics. While those may seem like modest goals (Canada tied for 13th in the medals in Beijing), London pits tiny Canada against a host of Summer Games superpowers including China, the U.S. and Russia.

By the time of the Vancouver Games, OTP was already looking to summer in London and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and confronting some hard fiscal realities. Among these was the need to expand and repurpose its flagship Top Secret research and development program while dealing with the inevitable drop in corporate funding after Vancouver. Top Secret lavished $8 million over four years on 55 confidential research projects for 18 sports in what one U.S. newspaper called “Canada’s non-nuclear Manhattan Project.” Some innovations improved equipment design for Winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes, others focused on boosting athlete performance through such things as advanced training equipment, biomechanics and improved aerodynamics. About 12 to 15 of those projects had an impact on producing medals in Vancouver, says Jon Kolb, director of sport science, medicine and innovation for OTP.

Today, OTP must spread about $1 million a year in innovation funding over 49 summer and winter sports. “The lay of the land has changed significantly,” says Merklinger. “That just means we need to be more targeted.” Only projects near certain to produce a competitive advantage are funded. As well, the mandate has expanded in a critical new direction, to improve athlete health. Getting an athlete to the podium is only part of the equation. Maintaining that investment in peak performance over several seasons and Olympic cycles requires advances in training, nutrition, injury prevention and recovery. “Return to podium” is the new buzz phrase. And Top Secret is being renamed as Innovation for Gold to reflect its broader mandate. The thinking is the more positive vibe of the new name is also a better draw for image-conscious corporate sponsors.

“There are still a large number of research projects that are top secret,” Kolb says. In front of him, on a table at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, is a binder with 27 project-summary reports. “This is everything here,” he says with a grin. “And I’m not giving it to you.” Still, Maclean’s was granted exclusive access to some of the projects and ideas that will shape Team Canada’s performance in London and beyond, including sleep therapy, concussion research and the powers of beetroot.

Attitude, altitude and beets

“It’s like a sweaty chess match,” 22-year-old wrestler Erica Wiebe says of her sport, albeit one with a greater risk of injury. “Our life is all about getting beat up.” Wiebe heads to London as an alternate and training partner to Leah Callahan in the 72-kg category. She’s been remarkably durable after nine years in a rough sport, although today she’s hobbled by an ankle sprain, the result of an impromptu soccer game. She’s on the track at the University of Calgary doing a series of stretches as physiotherapist Louise Vien runs her through a “functional movement screen.” It’s a way of assessing range, flexibility and core strength. “We’re looking for that little bit,” says Vien, “the difference to convert a fifth place to a first place.” While some tests involve real-time ultrasound and other technologies, simply watching the quality of movement can reveal an athlete compensating for weakness or injury. “We know the cheating patterns,” says Vien. “It’s like detective work.”

Vien welcomes the greater emphasis on keeping athletes in the game and taking a more holistic approach to training and recovery. “Let’s face it,” she says of elite athletes, “they’re all a bit battered.” “My coach says no one overtrains,” says Wiebe, “everyone just under-recovers.”

Many of the innovations developed for Vancouver have been transferred to summer athletes. Among them is Kolb’s work in altitude training, which was initially used by speed skaters, cross-country skiers and biathletes and is now applied to such sea-level sports as rowing. Training at altitude is not new. Lower oxygen at higher levels stimulates the production of performance-boosting red blood cells, a legitimate way of achieving what the East Germans used to do with blood-doping injections. The Canadian edge is a formula for combining actual altitude training with simulated altitude, achieved by having athletes sleep in tents with high levels of nitrogen. The secret is in the most effective combination of actual and fake altitude.

Nutrition is another area where formulas are as carefully guarded as Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe. Among the tried-and-tested supplements are beta-alanine (an amino acid that increases muscles strength, mass and endurance), caffeine and concentrated beetroot, which enhances oxygen uptake. Canada’s rowers have supplement-loaded drinks in their hands within minutes of getting off the water, and the result is a string of personal-best performances. “You have to get the proper recovery foods into your system generally less than 20 minutes from hard training to get the proper recovery benefits,” says Wendy Pattenden, CEO for Canadian Sport Centre Pacific, which leads the research. As to the value of eating your beets, and in what concentration, Pattenden isn’t saying much. “No one knows what we’re doing with it,” she says, “but it’s okay to say we’re using it.”

Cyclists and triathletes are using NormaTec, a pneumatic compression device that wraps around limbs like a giant blood-pressure cuff to boost circulation and to speed healing. While many riders on the Tour de France use the technology, Canadian scientists have tweaked the product. “We’ve taken it up a notch and have a different approach,” says Kolb. Don’t ask for details.

Spies, it seems, are everywhere. If OTP is a bit paranoid about secrecy, it’s because Canadians have their own modest intelligence-gathering service. Again, details are vague, but Canada’s touring national sport organizations are expected to keep their eyes on the competition for new developments. “We’re trying to accumulate information from all of these trips and bring it back so we can disseminate it to other sports we feel it might be of benefit to,” says Kolb. OTP also has a performance and intelligence analyst who data-mines academic journals, media reports and corporate news for promising innovations, and tracks the strategies of competing nations. It’s important to know, says Kolb, “who’s on your ass.”

To sleep, perchance to win

Katy Murdoch, a 25-year-old Calgary-based swimmer, is a classic case of the overachieving athlete—one whose admirable ambition was killing her career. As one of Canada’s best backstroke swimmers, she was juggling a workload that began with a 5 a.m. wake up for a 6 a.m. plunge for her first training session. From there, she carried a full course load at the University of Calgary’s kinesiology program, followed by more training, then homework; then, finally, bed. Add to that the heavy travel of an elite athlete, an attempt to have a modicum of a social life and the result: disaster. “Probably my first three years of university I had chronic fatigue,” she says. “I had mono. I was just constantly ill and I don’t think I was really reaching my potential. I’d go to a competition and I’d be ill right after. I’d do really well, but it would take a month to recover.”

Some four years ago she paid a visit to sleep expert Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director for the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance. Samuels had been commissioned by OTP to improve one of the most neglected areas of Canada’s Olympians, their dismal sleep habits. “The biggest issue is they’re losing good athletes,” Samuels says. “They just give up because they’re sick.” His offices are equipped with two bedrooms wired to a computer lab to monitor sleep patterns. But in Murdoch’s case the fix began with something more fundamental: he read her the riot act. She was doing too much. Something had to give. “You were pretty intimidating,” Murdoch tells him with a grin during a recent visit. Samuels shrugs. He’s had many such talks; he spent 10 years on contract to the Calgary police department, working to alleviate the damage of shift work. “You have to be honest because it takes a lot to get this athlete back. A lot. And everybody has to get it.” That means getting coaches, parents, schools and the athlete onside. Balancing university and the demands of an elite athlete are too much, he says. He’s given the same lecture to many of the women on Canada’s speed-skating team. “You’re nuts,” he tells them. “But there was just this culture that ‘I have to do everything.’ ”

Murdoch pared back her course load, allowing her a midday nap. She outfitted her room with blackout curtains, a simple fix. Samuels also devises custom travel plans, having athletes adjust their sleep times, light exposure and meals to correspond to their destination before they leave home. Often, light therapy and light-blocking glasses are used to trick their brains into a new time zone. That, and a judicious use of sedatives and the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduce jet lag.

Samuels has developed a sleep-screening tool that athletes fill out online, which often highlights problem areas. “Sedative prescriptions have run amok in this population,” he says. “The men’s biathlon team was hilarious. They all started telling me about their little cocktails.” Sleep apnea is another common problem, exacerbated by the heavy build and relatively short necks of bobsled, luge and summer power athletes. Many “snore like a train” and rarely get the required deep sleep to fully recover. “Bobsledders, these people drive very dangerous little things down a track. That’s not safe, so you want them alert,” Samuels says. Many, after assessment in his lab, are equipped with dental appliances or more invasive machines to keep essential airways open.

As for Murdoch, she finally earned her degree this year, ending a seven-year process. She hasn’t been sick in two years and recorded some of her best times, until a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery took her out of contention for the London Olympics. The injury was a huge disappointment, though if it’s any consolation, she isn’t losing sleep over it.

A head start on concussion

In a darkened room at the Sport Medicine Centre at the University of Calgary, 22-year-old Ivan Marcisin, a goalie for Canada’s water polo team, is playing what appears to be an intense version of Pong, that old-school tennis video game. He’s staring at a video screen, gripping two paddles to bat at a cascade of electronic balls. As simple as the game looks, the $160,000 Canadian-engineered KINARM is the centrepiece of a world-leading advance in concussion research financed by OTP.

Marcisin doesn’t have a concussion, but there’s big potential for injury in water polo. “A lot of kicking, punching and grabbing happens underwater where the refs can’t see it,” he says. “It’s all subjective, they can only guess.” In that sense, the sport is a metaphor for the hidden injury of concussion.

Tracking Marcisin’s progress by computer is Dr. Sean Dukelow, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Marcisin performs three variations of the test, measuring speed and accuracy of movement, reaction times and “executive function,” the ability to hit designated shapes while avoiding other “distractors” raining down the screen.

His results are at, or well above, the midpoint of the dozens of elite national athletes who have taken the test. That isn’t surprising for a goalie who needs speed and focus in a chaotic environment. Also watching Marcisin is Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, a professor and director of sport medicine for Canadian Sport Centre Calgary, an agency for high-performance athletes. “If we were punching you in the ribs,” he tells Marcisin with a grin, “you’d probably score far better.”

The superior reflexes of top athletes are one of the great problems in assessing concussion damage. Even at their worst, they may outscore “normal” non-athletes in the battery of highly subjective concussion assessments, says project member Brian Benson, a doctor and researcher at the university’s Sport Medicine Centre and a team physician for national alpine and sliding sports teams. “We don’t have great objective measures that can truly assess the degree of dysfunction that athletes have, and when they’re truly recovered from their injury.”

The concussion project has tested some 300 healthy athletes in the past year, many from high-risk winter sports, to establish their individual performance baselines. Next up are summer sports. Too often athletes push to return to play when the headaches and mental fuzziness stop. What they and even their doctors can miss are less obvious deficiencies that lead to subpar performance. Worse, says Benson, “those subtle deficits can lead to repeat injury or other injury.”

Although none of the doctors in the room will say so, hockey great Sidney Crosby may be the poster boy for an athlete who made his initial return from concussion far too soon. Concussions are a plague in many winter and summer Olympic sports. In so-called “collision sports” from hockey to soccer, 10 per cent or more of a team may be concussed in any given year, says Benson. Yet the injury is as elusive as the brain itself. When Canadian diving great Alexandre Despatie slammed his head into a diving board in Madrid last month, ripping a gash near his hairline, initial neurological tests showed no brain injury. It was on return to Canada that a specialist diagnosed a concussion.

While Despatie’s injury is rated minor, those “subtle deficits” can have a profound impact on performance. Dukelow calls up the baseline results of an unnamed national luge athlete conducted last September. “Unfortunately, they had an accident on the track and came back in February.” The contrast is stark. The athlete’s reaction time increased, while speed and accuracy slowed. “They’ve now lost half a second, essentially, in terms of their ability to react,” Dukelow says. “It’s the difference between making a turn, and not making a turn; and maybe the difference between you living or not living.” Same story for a bobsledder. He or she hit 81 per cent of the KINARM targets before an accident. After the crash, that fell to 63 per cent, with a decline in peripheral vision. (Both athletes would eventually recover.) That result might pass unnoticed for an average person; on the track it could spell disaster. Dukelow did his initial research with a KINARM in treating stroke and brain injury patients. This version is “turbocharged” to meet the performance demands of elite athletes, but the potential benefits of such research extend to the sporting community as a whole. “People who get banged up and are unable to recover never make it to that elite level. They’ll drop out of sport earlier,” says Meeuwisse. “We want to have more survivors. We don’t want kids quitting sport, quitting being active, just because they’ve had an injury.”

While Own the Podium is gunning for gold, advances in sports medicine, technology and nutritional supplements can eventually have applications for the rest of us. The medals have their own therapeutic value. Every Olympics throws up a new generation of heroes, people to inspire others to get off the couch and into an active, healthy life, says Merklinger. “We don’t talk a lot about why medals matter, but we know they matter,” she says. “We see the impact.”

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