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Innovation for Gold: Canada’s under cover program

A tattoo of a maple leaf and the Olympic rings is seen on the back of Canada's Brent Hayden as he attends a training session at the main pool of the Aquatics Centre before the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games in London July 25, 2012.

TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

One of the most influential members of Canada's Olympic team isn't in London. Instead, he sits in his northwest Calgary office following the overseas action by computer or television, keenly glued to the little things that will probably go unnoticed.

Like the way the Canadian women's soccer team recovers from one match to the next. Or the way freestyler Ryan Cochrane "hydroplanes" through the water. Or how the rowers do their thing, the thing Jon Kolb can't talk about because "it's still a secret, and we don't want our competitors to know what we're doing."

Kolb is the director of sport science, medicine and innovation for Own The Podium and its uber-secretive Innovation for Gold program. He helped co-ordinate the plans and projects that helped Canada finish atop the medal podium at the 2010 Winter Olympics. For the Summer Games, which open Friday, as well as the coming Paralympics, Kolb has overseen a dozen projects aimed at helping Canada finish among in the top 12 medal-winning nations.

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He is not here in jolly old England because, science-wise, he is already working on preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Also on the agenda is a post-London session dealing with boat design – how to make canoes, kayaks, sail boats and rowing shells go faster in the water while meeting strictly enforced restrictions.

"Right now we have a $3.5-million gap in research [funding]," Kolb said of OTP's future ambitions. (Innovation for Gold's predecessor, the Top Secret program, spent $8-million over four years on 55 projects so confidential that anyone involved with them had to sign a non-disclosure agreement.) "There's so much more we can do but the funds are limited."

The imagination, however, is untapped. Kolb believes in what he dubs the three pillars: sports engineering, athletic performance through new training methods and optimizing an athlete's health. The London Olympics will be a showcase for athletes' health.

Cochrane, a bronze medalist in 2008, competes Saturday in the 400-metre freestyle then doesn't swim again until Aug. 4. To keep himself primed, Cochrane is moving out of the Athletes' Village and taking company with him.

"I'm having our team nutritionist cook for me," Cochrane said. "That way I can go to the training facility and have a little bit of a different life and it might be a good recharge."

Kolb will be watching how Cochrane swims in the 400. Given his individual physiology, Cochrane's stroking technique allows him to "hydroplane in the water," said Kolb. "He has a definite look to his core section when he goes through the water. Ryan and his biomechanist Alan Wrigley have used that to work on Ryan's stroke. I sort of have an eye for that."

Women's soccer coach John Herdman has been equally receptive to new ways, new initiatives in terms of his players' overall health and recovery. In the months leading up to the Games, the women's team trained wearing heart monitors while taking in food and water at specific times. Everything was driven by the team having to play its first two matches in just three days.

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That aside, OTP is burrowing in on how to technologically advance the equipment its athletes use. While that's best suited to the Winter Games, where athletes compete on snow and ice, Kolb and his ilk are keen to find those extra 1/100ths of a second that can transform fourth-place finishers into medalists.

"You're looking for ways beyond the human limits. We're reaching the biological capacity. The way to get ahead is by the technology and equipment," Kolb said. "If you're not at the cutting edge of performance analyticals – the strain gauge and efficiency of the equipment an athlete is using – you're not in the game."

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

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