The Chronicle Herald: Stroke science stokes Olympic medal hopes

A researcher at Dalhousie University is wiring up Canadian athletes like actors doing motion capture, to help them win Olympic medals.

Josh Goreham, working on his PhD in kinesiology, is focusing on canoe and kayak competition at the highest levels.

“My research looks at ways that we can use small sensors — inertial sensors, they’re called,” Goreham said in a recent interview. “We place them on the body and also the boat of the athlete, and it’s kind of like a motion capture system. So, currently what I’m trying to do is validate the system in order to eventually use it on the water.”

That means the project is in the early phases, having the athletes come into the lab and have the small sensors installed at various points of the body, termed limb segments.

“The athlete does their technique or their paddling and we get raw data from them. So it tells us things like joint angles, accelerations of the body, boat velocity, how the boat moves, that sort of thing.”

Goreham’s goal at this point is to validate the sensors — make sure they’ll work as the researchers want them to. Once that’s achieved, they will move on to using them on the athletes as they’re in the water. They will then analyze the data and determine what is useful and what is not, and parse down the data collection until they can focus on exactly what they need to tell an athlete or coach about what’s going on with their technique and how it can be fixed.

Each boat already has a sensor on it collecting a variety of data.

“What an inertial sensor has is an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a GPS,” Goreham explained. “So the accelerations of the boat are picked up by the accelerometer, that gives us things like stroke rate, how much force an athlete can apply to the boat or how much acceleration they can apply to the boat.

“The gyroscope gives us information about the pitch, yaw and roll of the boat, so how does the boat glide or move, or if you want to think of it as how does it balance in the water. Better athletes have less boat movement than weaker athletes.”

The GPS gives them positional data, just like the GPS in a cellphone or car would. It tells them where the athlete is on the lake at all times and how fast they’re moving.

“By combining those three devices we can get really important information on how to monitor the athlete and make them better,” the 31-year-old from Cape Sable Island said.

Ultimately, he wants get the systems together on the water and take it to the next level. Goreham hopes to have the data collection streamlined enough to have it work through just one sensor placed on the boat. It will take a bit of time to get there, though. He’s predicting four to six months.

The research is funded through Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization that works to build partnerships among universities, companies, and federal and provincial governments, and Own the Podium, Canada’s development program aiming for Olympic success.

The goal of this project is to provide medals at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and Paris in 2024, Goreham said.

Athletes are buying in and using these kinds of metrics now. Goreham’s research will take it to a new level with real-time analysis.

Goreham has worked with Canadian Sports Centre Atlantic and Canoe Kayak Canada for the past five years, and has worked on this project for about two years. He hopes to finish his doctorate two years from now.

The Canadian women’s canoe team trains on nearby Lake Banook and the women kayakers train on Kearney Lake. The men’s canoe team is in Ottawa and their kayakers are based in Quebec city.

“Luckily I’ve travelled to a few events internationally and it’s really interesting because I’m not a canoe/kayak athlete — I’ve never been one — but when you get connected with the team and you work with them daily and then one of your athletes or one of the athletes you’ve been working for wins a medal or gets a personal best and you see that your work along with other people’s work helped them do that, it’s just a feeling you can’t really describe.”

By: Stuart Peddle