Editor’s note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 29th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of biomechanist Jim Richards.
With only seven months until the Olympic caldron shrines bright on host city Sochi, Russia, athletes are vigorously training in preparation. Competition is fierce and Olympic hopefuls are expected to be faster, stronger and capable of superhuman feats. But one winter sport, known for its grace and beauty, is wreaking havoc on the joints of developing bodies: ice skating.
“We’ve seen skaters as young as 20 who have had major surgeries and hip replacements,” says Jim Richards, a scientist at University of Delaware’s human performance lab.
When Richards decided to pursue a career in sports biomechanics and kinematics, or the study of human motion, he had no idea he would be spending so much time in a damp cold ice skating rink. However, when the university built his lab, they neglected to include one major necessity, and he had to walk through the rink every day to reach the restroom.
After watching elite figure skaters crash to the ice over and over, he thought he could approach their training in a more efficient way.
Richards is one of the first scientists to successfully leverage motion capture data to create 3-D simulations. The models help assess athletic ability and decrease the chance of physical injury.
“The whole point of what we’re doing is to accelerate their ability to learn these jumps,” Richards says, “We’re decreasing the number of impacts which we hope would have an effect on the long-term health of their lower extremity joints.”
Motion capture technology has been used to develop lifelike movements in animations and video games. For skating, 40 markers are placed on the athlete’s body while 10 high-speed infrared cameras record the markers' movements. Richards and his team are doing something other sports haven’t done; they’re constructing models that allow them to play what-if games.
The research is sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee and United States Figure Skating, and while the university has had requests from all around the world, the program is exclusive to U.S. athletes.
It could take up to a year to master aerial tricks known as triple and quadruple rotation jumps. After completing the analysis, one skater landed the perfect jump the same day. The learning curve is drastically reduced and most participants successfully complete the jumps within two weeks.
Nearly 70 skaters have gone through the system and they are blown away by the results.
“This program is going to help skaters for the future figure out how to do more quads, and who knows, maybe quints,” said Alex Johnson, an internationally ranked figure skater and Olympic contender.
Richards envisions the day when he is able to measure motion without markers. New systems in development do not require tracking, which means the analysis could be performed in real time. It opens up an entire world of possibilities. Richards could analyze a fast ball pitch during the World Series, a three-point shot in an NBA game, and a gymnast’s mid-air vault.
Athletes aren’t the only ones benefiting from this technology. Richards spends a significant amount of time working with children whose shoulders are injured during difficult deliveries.
“He has tackled a problem that we have wrestled with for the last 100 years,” says Dr. Scott Kozin, M.D., chief of staff at Shriners Hospital for Children in Phila., Pa.
Approximately four out of every 1,000 births result in brachial plexus birth palsy, an injury that causes nerves in the shoulder to tear during childbirth. Skeletal simulation enables surgeons to measure upper extremity motion without radiation. The long-term goal is to operate on the model and see the outcome on the computer before ever working with the patient.
“It’s fun to work with a population that can do incredible things when it comes to physical ability,” Richards says, “but the reality is if you can play some small role in helping a child walk better or be able to use their arm better, that’s a far more rewarding experience.”
Richards is revolutionizing the way athletes train and he is transforming the way doctors treat children.