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Ryan Cochrane, an Olympic bronze medal winner in the 1500m freestyle in Beijing, China in 2008, talks with Head Coach Randy Bennett between sets as he prepares to compete in this year's summer Olympics in London,UK, during a training session at the Saanich Commonwealth Place near Victoria, BC. (Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail)
Ryan Cochrane, an Olympic bronze medal winner in the 1500m freestyle in Beijing, China in 2008, talks with Head Coach Randy Bennett between sets as he prepares to compete in this year's summer Olympics in London,UK, during a training session at the Saanich Commonwealth Place near Victoria, BC. (Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail)

Science of Sport

Part speed, part stamina, all strategy Add to ...

On the third floor of a concrete building nestled in a Saanich hillside, 16 people sit in a conference room, their laptop computers at the ready; a wall-sized screen awash in digits.

For more than an hour there has been talk of hemoglobin mass numbers, micro-cycles, training blocks and anthropometric test results. With the click of a mouse, there is data that dates back six years.

As the meeting winds down, the call goes around the table. It plays like a NASA prelaunch sequence with each department answering, “go or no go.” Physiology, medicine, biomechanics, mental wellness, nutrition – everyone answers to the affirmative.

“We got a chip under his skin yet?” someone asks.

All this science and information dissemination is about one thing: putting Canadian swimmers on the Olympic podium – and the one most likely to get there is Ryan Cochrane, the hometown pride of Victoria’s Island Swim Association and Canadian Sport Centre Pacific.

Cochrane was a rising star even before he captured a 2008 Olympic bronze medal in the 1,500-metre freestyle event. Since then, he’s won Commonwealth gold, Pan-Pacific gold and three silver medals at the world aquatic championships.

To stand atop the Olympic podium at this summer’s London Games, the 23-year-old and his coach, Randy Bennett, have embraced CSCP and its Integrated Service Team of laptop-crunching, number-munching experts, all of whom are as passionate about their science as Cochrane is about getting wet.

It’s a marriage of mutual conviction. Cochrane wants to do everything he can to outswim Chinese rival Sun Yang, the current 1,500 world-record holder, while Cochrane’s IST wants to prepare him in ways he never imagined, all of them inspired by the late CSCP vice-president Gord Sleivert, who died suddenly in April after the Olympic swim trials in Montreal.

Prior to his death, Sleivert had said: “There’s so much we can offer and we’re in a good place. It’s all about pursuing the dream.”

Pursuing Olympic dreams is now a high-tech, systematic endeavour involving many fields, many voices. In Cochrane’s case, there’s a lot to consider.

His race is the longest in the pool. It’s part endurance, part speed, part technique, all strategy. There are 30 turns, which means all are important but not critical.

“You can recover if you make a mistake,” Cochrane explains during an afternoon break. “In the 1,500, there are so many races in one race. That’s the challenge. That’s why I like it.”

Getting the 6-foot-4, 176-pound swimmer streamlined for the 1,500 involves a massive amount of work. Bennett says in hard training Cochrane “averages somewhere about 80,000 metres a week over 30 weeks, and about 14 or 15 weeks at 70,000. He gets a mental lift knowing he’s doing a pretty significant level of work compared to anybody in the world.”

But as Swimming Canada chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine tells it: “It’s not just swimming up and down the pool any more.”

What makes Cochrane so good is his attention to detail and what he’s doing when he’s swimming all those metres. Specifically, he is concentrating on his stroke and maintaining elbow position on his catch (the hand that goes into the water). Proper positioning gives him a stronger pull and the better the pull, the more efficiently he can move through the water.

He’s also thinking about other things, thanks to his IST adviser with a thing for numbers.

The Biomechanist

Allan Wrigley has done the math. Here’s what the keeper of the technique has come up with based on six years worth of Cochrane’s performance data: After examining swimming speed, stroke rate and stroke length over 10-metre-by-10-metre splits, Cochrane is at his best when he’s averaging 1.71 metres per second in the pool.

If he does that over 1,500 metres, he’ll clock in at 14 minutes 30 seconds, break the world record and win the gold medal.

“How do you swim 1.71 metres per second?” Wrigley asks. “You can do it a whole bunch of different ways. But consistently, when Ryan is going 1.71 metres per second, he’s usually holding around a 40-stroke cycle per minute. He’s usually holding 2.5 metres per stroke. If you do the math on that, that equals 1.71 metres per second. That works out to be no more than 35 strokes per lap. For Ryan, his size and the way he swims, we know he needs to hold down 35 or under to have a nice, strong and efficient stroke to hold enough water.”

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