"I might be a little bold here, but I would say for the most part any significant performance improvements are due to science," said Richard Kirby, a computer-vision scientist brought in as a consultant for this project. "Because if humans train the same way they always train, they're going to go the same speed they've always gone."
Over four months, the team observed Jones' training sessions, paying close attention to things such as her knee angle versus her center of mass and how she cleared the initial hurdle, because that first hurdle set the stage for everything else.
In addition to generating 3-D graphics, the group also printed out hard copies for her coach, Dennis Shaver, who preferred having paper in hand to better compare what he was seeing on the track.
For a baseline of comparison, researchers used Jones' performance during the semifinals in Beijing, when she finished in a personal-best time of 12.43 seconds.
"That was a good gauge," Shaver said. "Although, comparing that data in Beijing to the data they collect in training sessions is a little bit unfair, because in training sessions the intensity of work isn't quite the same."
Still, the data put them on the right track.
And clued them into something they were suspecting: Jones' first eight steps leading up to the initial hurdle could possibly be improved.
"What coach Shaver told us was that if she gets to the first hurdle in middle of the group, she wins the race 100 percent of the time," Kirby said. "If she doesn't get to the first hurdle with the group, then she's got a 50-50 shot."
Through their data collection and movement analysis, they identified that Jones' trail leg — her left one — also was trailing in the first eight steps coming out of the blocks. It wasn't generating the same type of acceleration as her right side.
Translation: She was theoretically losing time, at least according to what hurdling specialists know today. Kirby estimated there was room to gain 0.01 seconds per left step, provided that improving the left side didn't adversely affect the right.
"That's enormous in this sport," Kirby said.
A crucial discovery and one that may be remedied through leg-specific exercises in the weight room or simply with more sprinting, with no hurdles in the way.
As for tweaking her technique, those changes will be left for another time. The researchers didn't want to tinker too much this close to the Olympics.
"They've already got most of the puzzle figured out," Walshe said. "What the information was designed to do is support what they already know, and potentially reinforce some ideas they have.
"People think you need to do this to find an answer and that fixes it and then you run fast. It just doesn't work that way."
The project has led to a surge in confidence for a hurdler who's lately had her share of injuries. Jones is steadily rounding back into shape after undergoing back surgery to fix a tethered spinal cord last August.
"I just feel better prepared," Jones said.
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