Franck Fife | AFP | Getty Images
Downhill skier Lindsey Vonn
Lindsey Vonn remains one of the most gifted and decorated downhill skiers ever, and at age 33 she's poised to expand upon her greatness at the XXIII Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Yet her snowy paths to glory have been cratered with spectacular crashes and horrible injuries — broken bones, torn ligaments, concussions — that would have ended a less stalwart athlete's career.
Each time, though, Vonn's recovered, thanks in large part to the advanced sports medicine provided at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah. Along with availing herself of the latest and greatest gym equipment and machines at the COE, as it's known, Vonn has access to virtual reality setups to simulate racing down a slalom course, computers crunching big data to enhance performance (legally) and strobe glasses to help retrain the brain after knee injuries.
The 85,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility sits on five verdant acres in the Wasatch Mountains, just outside of Park City, home of USSA, the governing body of snow sports in the United States. It opened in 2009, paid for with $22 million in private donations — another reminder that the United States remains one of the only nations that doesn't fund its Olympic athletes. Besides training and education for Team USA skiers and snowboarders, the COE is a rehabilitation and sports medicine showcase. "The hardware and techniques we use are on the forefront of injury rehab," said Kyle Wilkens, medical director of USSA. "It's changing the way we serve our athletes."
Sunshine fills the sprawling first floor of the two-story COE, a gym rat's nirvana highlighted by neat rows of gleaming apparatus and workout stations divided into five areas: strength and conditioning, physiology, medical, sports psychology and nutrition. When an athlete begins a scheduled program, the trainers, coaches and sports medicine staff develop a distinct plan for that particular athlete, Wilkens said. "He or she touches base with each one of those five areas, and the staff communicates throughout the process. The atmosphere is very collaborative."
The personal evaluations of USSA athletes, and dozens of other Team USA athletes, are overseen by Dr. Bill Moreau, vice president of sports medicine at the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). He and his associates leverage big data to assist trainers and coaches in designing individual regimens. "When we can use evidence-based medicine to drive decisions, it clearly makes a big difference in the outcomes of care," Moreau told the data analytics website kdnuggets.com.
Sarah Brunson | U.S. Ski Team
Lindsey Vonn working out at the Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah
Moreau's team identifies and analyzes assorted medical, physiological, nutritional and psychological data collected from USOC's electronic health record system, a customized version of General Electric's Centricity Practice Solution software, to produce an integrated action plan for each athlete. "As we improve our ability to incorporate data into our analyses and processes, we have been able to create impactful reports for Team USA," Moreau said. "Improved data analysis is a key focus of the USOC to drive sports medicine, as well as high-performance outcomes."
The seven different sports USSA's 200-plus athletes compete in are clocked at hundredths of a second, so the COE's mission is to coordinate a variety of advanced techniques that cumulatively give them every possible edge to end up on the podium at the Olympics. For example, force plate technology gives baseline measurements that are used for programs at the Center but also when skiers compete in their sport, Wilkens said, describing a sensor-loaded mechanism that precisely measures strength and power.
The way the force plate works, an athlete takes several jumps off a short stand and onto a sort of scale device. A trainer sits directly in front, monitoring an interconnected computer and video camera to record every movement during each jump. The data is analyzed to create an individualized profile about how that athlete is generating force and when.
Vonn used the force plate when rehabbing a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in her right knee, suffered in a devastating crash in 2013 that scratched her from the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A trainer would put Vonn on the force plate and record her technique and form, then forward the data and video to her orthopedic specialist to observe progress before allowing her to get back on skis.
Fast-forwarding therapy with VR tech
Last year the COE teamed up with Strivr Labs, based in Palo Alto, California, to build out a virtual reality system that digitally recreates the Olympic downhill courses in Pyeongchang, right down to the location of the gates and shapes of the turns the racers will navigate. The process began by affixing a 360-degree camera on top of a skier's helmet as he zipped down the actual mountain in Korea to capture footage of real-world conditions, complete with wind whooshing past the microphone.
Back at the COE, the video was paired with Strivr's customized VR software. It's all linked to VR headsets the athletes don while straddling a pair of balance boards, adding real movements to the virtual scenes. Performed over and over, the technology benefits skiers by enabling them to repeat practice runs that improve their reaction times, theoretically leading to better decision-making and overall performance.
By the time they enter the starting gates at Pyeongchang's Jeongseon Alpine Centre, located in the Taebaek Mountains about 90 miles east of Seoul, the skiers will have relived the exact courses as many times as they want, in a VR environment that their brain responds to in a similar manner to real skiing. The VR experience complements an indoor ski simulator, designed by Los Angeles-based SkyTechSport, another tech tool that approximates real-world race conditions.
Retraining the brain
A different type of groundbreaking visual technology, called strobe glasses, is employed at COE to aid recovery from knee injuries like Vonn's. Yet different from physical therapy that helps the athlete relearn how to move the knee, strobe glasses retrain the brain. Their use grew out of research in neuroplasticity training at Ohio State University, which studied how athletes rehab ACL damage.
By comparing MRI scans, researchers could see the difference in brain activity in healthy adults, versus those recovering from ACL injuries, when extending and flexing the knee. "The brain fundamentally changed in how it processes information from an injured knee," said Dustin Grooms, who led the study and is now at Ohio University. "We think those changes play a big role in why people who recover from ACL injuries don't trust their knees entirely and tend to move them differently," potentially putting them at risk for reinjury.
During therapy sessions, the athlete puts on the strobe — or formally stroboscopic — glasses, which resemble dark sunglasses. They naturally obscure vision, but even more so by emitting rapid bursts of light, creating an effect that interferes, distorts and forces the body to move instinctively rather than by sight.
Source: Center of Excellence rehab center
Skier Laurenne Ross working on the VR setup at the The Center of Excellence rehab center for Olympians.
"The idea is to use the strobe glasses to visually distract these patients, so their brains will rewire back to their original state," Grooms said. "That will allow them to once again move their knee based on natural instinct instead of relying on visual cues."
Among the mere mortal, recreational skiers and snowboarders — numbering about 10 million in the United States, according to Statista — crashes and injuries happen, too, despite ever-improving skis, snowboards, helmets and other equipment. Advancements in sports medicine such as those offered to Olympians at the COE are becoming available to the general public. That's reassuring for weekend warriors, many of whom are keeping their fingers crossed that Vonn and her Team USA mates going for the gold in Pyeongchang stay on course and injury-free.