Photograph by Joe McNally
Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
"How fast can I go?
Can I break a record?"
"Why not?" replies Bill Kaiser, an aquatics specialist for USA Swimming. He snaps a harness around my midsection. I slip into lane one of the 50-meter (164-foot) pool at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, nod to Kaiser, and shove off the wall.
Suddenly my body feels like a bullet ripping through the water. Never have my arms and shoulders rotated with such power. Each stroke seems to propel me twice the usual distance. I feel instantly euphoric, as if my brain were surging with endorphins.
Kaiser has hooked my harness to a pulley system known as a tow, a training device that drags a high-performance swimmer 5 percent faster than he usually swims. It allows the swimmer to get a feel for the increased speed, adjust his stroke patterns and body rotations accordingly, and eventually swim faster on his own. In my case, the tow is moving almost 50 percent faster than my norm.
Twenty-three seconds later I touch the wall. "Congratulations," says Kaiser. "You've just beaten Amy Van Dyken's American record for the 50 free."
He's referring to the 50-meter freestyle race Van Dyken swam in 24.87 seconds in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. With that and three other events she became the first American woman to win four gold medals in one Olympics.
I'm not an Olympic-caliber competitor. I'm a middle-age masters swimmer who's won a few medals in my age group.
The human body, I know, did not evolve to swim laps—or to kick a soccer ball or to do somersaults off a 10-meter (33-foot) platform. But as long as humans have had a sense of sport and competition, we have invented ways to push our anatomy to its limits. What are those limits? In this Olympic year I am studying some of the men and women trained to perform as if there were none.
Numerous factors—genetic, psychological, cultural, and financial—go into making a super performer, but the right genes may be the most critical. Elite athletes, as these super performers are called, are in a sense fortunate freaks of nature.
Take their muscles, for instance. The fibers within most human skeletal muscles are close to evenly divided between fast-twitch fibers, which contract very rapidly, and slow-twitch fibers, which don't contract as quickly but generate energy much more efficiently. Olympic weight lifters have an unusual abundance of fast-twitch fibers; these give them the explosive power to jerk hundreds of pounds from the ground to over their heads in a spilt second. The legs of elite marathon runners, on the other hand, might contain up to 90 percent slow-twitch fibers, giving them the endurance for longer, aerobic activities.
Whether fast-twitches or slow, however, elite athletes take human performance to a notch we lesser mortals can only imagine. So that I can better understand why I'm among the ranks of those who must imagine, I am escorted to a contraption called the flume.
The flume is like a treadmill in water—a 15-foot-long (4.6-meter-long) pool with motors that generate precisely controlled currents. The faster the current, the faster the swimmer has to stroke to stay clear of the back of the pool.
"You're going to swim for three minutes, then rest for two while we take some measurements," says Larry Herr, an exercise physiologist. " Then we'll increase the speed of the current, and you'll swim another three minutes. We'll do that five times, faster in each set."
"This is going to hurt, isn't it?" I say, as a technician straps on a heart-rate monitor.
"You can stop anytime," says Herr.
The technician inserts a mouthpiece connected by two tubes to a monitor that will measure the air going in and out of my lungs as I swim. That will allow measurement of my VO2 max, or the maximum volume of oxygen I use per minute while exercising as hard as I can. VO2 max is strongly influenced by genetics, but training can increase it as the body becomes more efficient at delivering oxygen to the muscles and using it there.
Next, the technician pricks my earlobe for a drop of blood. This will be repeated after each set to measure my lactate level. Lactate is a by product of the metabolic process that energizes muscles during the initial stage of intense exercise. This process is anaerobic—it does not use oxygen. Soon after exercise begins, the body switches to oxygen-burning, or aerobic, energy pathways, which fuel longer endurance activity. Normally blood vessels deliver enough oxygen to the muscles and remove enough lactate from them to prevent lactate accumulation. But during a sprint the system may fall behind and lactate may build up. Then cellular fluids become acid, interfering with muscle contraction and causing fatigue. Training increases heart capacity and the body's network of blood vessels. This increased circulation delivers more oxygen and clears more lactate. Thus the muscles can work longer and harder. Coaches measure lactate levels as one way of evaluating an athlete's level of training.
Once my beginning lactate level is established, I'm ready for my first round in the flume. It feels pretty much like a warm-up. After the second round I'm breathing hard. The third round feels like a full-pace effort and leaves me with my heart pounding, but I recover well during the two-minute rest period.
Midway through the fourth round my lungs begin to ache. My kick weakens, and my arms feel as if they're moving in slow motion no matter how fast I will them to pull. The same feeling sets in earlier in the final round. With no laps to count, I lose my sense of time. With no wall ahead of me getting closer—nothing to look at and say, "OK, I can get there"—I feel lost in a time warp of pain. The water feels as thick as mud. I can't finish.
"Your body went acid," says Herr after examining my biochemical results. "In the third set you hit your lactate threshold—when you couldn't clear all the lactate your muscles were producing." Acidity soared in the next rounds, and my muscles at last shut down. I reached my threshold at around 60 percent of VO2 max. The untrained, Herr explains, generally reach the same threshold at around 60 percent of VO2 max, while trained athletes don't hit that level until they're at 80 to 85 percent. Athletes rich in slow-twitch muscle fibers appear to have higher lactate thresholds.
Elite swimmers regularly approach the heavy lactate threshold of pain. Justin Ewers, an Olympic hopeful from Stanford University, describes it for me. "It's like getting goose bumps with acid in every one, along with deep burning in the lungs and the sensation of dragging lead weights behind you instead of legs." One difference between elites and others is how early the pain starts. "An elite may not feel it until the last three or four seconds of a race. Our training lets us get used to it, and we can ignore it for longer," says Ewers.
Lactate threshold aside, Herr gives me many other reasons why I'll never be an elite swimmer—besides the fact that I'm at least 25 years too old. At five feet nine (1.8 meters) I'm too short. Most male champions are over six feet (two meters)—taller, more streamlined bodies mean a longer reach and more productive stroke. And I'm a sinker, meaning too much of my body mass is concentrated south of my lungs, creating excess drag. Also, I don't finish my strokes.
Depressing as these facts are, there's more to life than swimming—especially at the Olympic Training Center. A short walk from the pool is the weight room, where athletes with entirely different genetic gifts are pushing their limits. It sounds like a demolition zone as intensely focused men and women thrust barbells weighing as much as 500 pounds (227 kilograms) over their heads, then drop them onto padded platforms.
Olympic weight lifting features two types of lifts. In the snatch the lifter propels a heavy barbell from the ground to arm's length overhead in one explosive movement. In the two-part clean and jerk the athlete lifts the bar to shoulder height, then jerks it above his head.
All the lifters have large, powerful thighs. In fact it is the upper leg muscles that initiate the lift by pushing downward into the platform at the beginning. Then the lifter uses hip, thigh, and back muscles to propel the bar upward. "This sport's different from what most people think," says Matt Rue, one of the lifters. " It's only 60 percent strength. The strongest guy in the world can't do what we do. What you really need is speed and agility and balance. We can all spring up and slam-dunk a basketball from a dead standstill under the hoop."
Surprisingly, a bulky muscle-builder physique is not needed to excel at this sport. More important is a rich supply of fast-twitch muscles, which create the power to heft hundreds of pounds into the air. At about 105 pounds (48 kilograms), Tara Nott looks more like the soccer player she once was than a woman capable of jerking 220 pounds (100 kilograms). And Jodi Wilhite, a 105-pound (48-kilogram) teenager from Florence, Texas, was a sprinter on the track team where her high school's football coach spotted her and suggested she try weight lifting.
I see Wilhite at work at the American Open Championships—a qualifying event for the Olympics—in Tacoma, Washington. She walks onto the stage and, her face flashing with effort, jerks 177 pounds (80 kilograms)—a junior American record for her weight.
Wilhite tells me she is dreaming of the 2004 Olympics. "But wanting and being there are two different things," she says. Lifters perfect their skills by repeating the same motions over and over until they become almost like reflexes, explains Wilhite. Dragomir Cioroslan, the head U.S. weight-lifting coach in Colorado Springs, had told me: "In one year the average male resident here will lift about 7 million pounds (3.2 million kilograms) in 20,000 reps. It takes thousands and thousands of reps." Wilhite will lift 10 million pounds (4.5 million kilograms) in 80,000 reps between now and 2004.
Greg Louganis, winner of four Olympic diving gold medals, says divers must train the same way: "You have less than three seconds from takeoff until you hit the water, so it has to be reflex. You have to repeat the dives hundreds, maybe thousands of times."
Louganis credits his thighs, which a biopsy showed to be especially rich in fast-twitch fibers—75 percent—for some of his spectacular success. The higher a diver can jump, the more time he has to complete the movement. But the kind of training it takes to turn physical gifts into automatic motion requires strong mental as well as physical skills.
Louganis admits his own drive may have been compulsive: "I equated winning medals with winning love. If I had been more psychologically and emotionally balanced, I wouldn't have—that's not a real healthy place to be."
But sport psychologists feel that most consistently successful athletes are psychologically healthy. "They have to be," says Sean McCann, a sport psychologist at the Olympic Training Center. "Otherwise they couldn't handle the training loads we put on them. They have to be good at setting goals, generating energy when they need it, and managing anxiety."
Compulsive or not, Louganis found ways to manage his own anxieties. "Most divers think too much about it up there," he says. "They're too much in their heads. I always tried to shift out the logical side of my brain. What worked for me was humor. I remember thinking about what my mother would say if she saw me do a bomb of a dive. She'd probably just compliment me on the beautiful splash."
The flip side of the intense physical and mental work that elite athletes perform is the ever present danger of overtraining—a syndrome that Louganis, like many Olympians, says he confronted. They push so hard they wear their bodies down. "The problem affects about two-thirds of all elite athletes at some point," says Jack Raglin, a sport psychologist at Indiana University. "They get stale and become prone to infections. Not uncommonly, they develop clinical depression."
Today most coaches watch carefully for signs of physical and mental strain in order to keep athletes healthy. And few countries devote more energy to maintaining the health of their athletes than Australia, host to the upcoming Olympic Games and one of the most sports-obsessed places in the world.
Some Olympic-caliber Australian athletes live and train at the government-operated Australian Institute for Sports (AIS) in Canberra. They work in state-of-the-art facilities, sleep in dormitories, eat meals tailored to their nutritional needs. A team of experts focuses on their development as parents might, lavishing attention and technology on them. Sport psychologists work with the athletes, teaching techniques for coping with stress, visualizing a winning performance, and setting specific goals, such as beating your best time by a certain date. Physiologists measure lactate levels frequently to help coaches bring athletes to peak performance levels right at competition time. Biomechanics experts analyze minute details of body movement. For rowers they use such tools a instrumented boats that can provide force profiles for every stroke of the oar.
The AIS also runs an intensive program for identifying gifted performers. "An elite athlete is the result of a collision—the right person with the right sport," says Deborah Hoare, director of the AIS talent identification program. "In a populous country the odds of that happening are much higher than they are here in Australia. We have to make it happen.
"We've modeled the ideal attributes for each sport—speed, strength, or physical traits, for example. Then we go out to high schools to find potential athletes," says Hoare. AIS scouts put students through a series of tests—jumping, sprinting, balancing. They take measurements as well. Rowers should have long arms and legs for maximum leverage, as well as natural endurance. Basketball players need height, speed, agility, long arms, and vertical jumping strength. With only 19 million people in Australia the institute is determined not to miss any potential Olympians.
Traditionally strong in swimming and rowing, Australia hopes to win medals in other sports, such as diving, in this Olympics. I visit the Aquatic Centre at Sydney's new Olympic Park for a World Cup diving competition, regarded as a test run for the Olympics. Several dozen female competitors from 30 countries are warming up as I arrive. Attended by a tense silence, the judges take their places alongside the diving well. One by one the divers walk to the edge of the platform and pause, gathering concentration. Then comes a slow, graceful lifting of the arms, a leap skyward, and a twisting, somersaulting dance with gravity. Less than three seconds later, like an arrow, each diver pierces the surface with barely a splash.
"People love to watch this on TV," says Valerie Beddoe, top diving manager of the Australian team. "But not many want to do it. It's hard to learn. It's very technical. It's scary. And it takes years to reach the elite level." Also, as graceful as diving looks, repeatedly hitting the water at more than 40 miles an hour (64 kilometers an hour) can be brutal on the body.
The intense work, the injury rate, and the pressures of competition—not just for divers but for all elite athletes—can lead to another widespread problem: the temptation to enhance training with such drugs as anabolic androgenic steroids, which build unnatural muscle bulk and strength.
"Our tests for most drugs are extremely sensitive," says David Gerrard, the physician overseeing the drug testing at the World Cup diving competition in Sydney. "If you tossed a couple of sugar cubes into that diving well, we'd be able to detect it."
Officials conduct unannounced drug tests, and athletes with positive results are heavily fined and disqualified from competition. But two of the most popular drugs used by athletes are difficult to detect. Both occur naturally in the body, but when artificial levels are achieved, their effects become exaggerated. Supplements of human growth hormone (hGH) appear to increase muscle mass and strength. Erythropoientin (EPO), released in greater volume by the kidneys when a person goes to a high altitude, tells the body to increase production of oxygen-bearing red blood cells. When injected before competition, EPO enhances aerobic performance.
Drugs such as hGH and EPO can cause serious medical complications ranging from arthritis and strokes to liver and cardiovascular disease, but in sports where big money is at stake and the difference between silver and gold may be measured in fractions of a second, athletes seem willing to take the risk. Rampant EPO use scandalized the 1988 Tour de France, and even as I am in Sydney, headlines announce that 22-year-old Australian supercyclist Tim Lyons has been suspended from international competition for two years for tests showing excess levels of muscle-building testosterone.
The Australians are committed to preventing such abuse at the 2000 Olympics. "It's not cricket," says Nicki Vance, program manager of doping control for the Sydney Games. "Sport is terribly important to this country, and we don't want drugs influencing these games. The Olympics won't be coming back to Australia for decades, and we've got to show the world we can do it right."
That won't be easy. In April a scandal hit the country when customs officials seized a bodybuilding hormone ordered from the United States by sport scientist John Pryor, who works with Olympians at the New South Wales Academy of Sport. The drug, called DHEA, is banned by many organizations, including the International Olympic Committee, but is available over the counter in the U.S.
Some athletes' body chemistry is naturally enhanced by their environment. Those raised at high altitudes in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco have blood that is especially rich in oxygen-bearing hemoglobin—as long as they continue to train at altitude. Cultural factors have also encouraged their bodies to excel at certain sports. " I had to run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to school every day," says Tegla Loroupe, a young woman from the pastoral Pokot tribe in northern Kenya. I'd be punished if I was late."
Loroupe, who has won multiple marathons, including New York City's twice, meets me near the town of Kapenguria, not far from the countryside where she grew up. She now lives near Hanover, Germany, but has returned to Kenya to train for the European track season.
Loroupe attributes some of her success to the altitude here—about 8,000 feet (2,439 meters)—and some to her cultural background. "We make the best runners. We are nomads, moving animals from place to place. As a girl it was my job to carry loads of firewood and water from the river."
Today Loroupe, petite at four feet eleven (1.5 meters) and 86 pounds (39 kilograms), runs 120 miles (193 kilometers) a week. "It's difficult to stay at this level," she admits, "but I have a strong mind. If I want something, I will get it."
Loroupe exhibited her strong-mindedness at an early age, when her father objected to her running because, as he said, it was not what a woman did. She promised that if he sent her and her brother to boarding school, she would stop, but coaches there insisted otherwise. Her mother and sister secretly urged her on. Today she is a national hero, and her prize money helps support a large extended family. "Last year my father told me he was glad I didn't obey him," she says.
A few hours away on the slopes of Mount Kenya, dawn breaking across the African sky, I drive alongside about 50 sleek and determined young runners from the Nyahururu training camp. Roosters crow as their rhythmic pace carries them past missionary schools, country markets, and plots of corn. Their easy, long-limbed stride is as old as this landscape where humans first evolved, but their dreams are of the modern world. They want to be the best—for Kenya, for their fellow runners, and for the big money Kenyans now win in Europe.
The camp is little more than a simple two-story concrete-block dorm on the edge of a farming town. "Most Western athletes wouldn't want to train here," says Moses Kiptanui, the camp's founder. Indeed, the camp lacks the high-tech frills common to training camps in wealthy countries, and the schedule is grueling. Each day begins early with a run lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, followed typically by intensive speed work at midday and another endurance run in the afternoon—maybe 15 miles (21 kilometers) by the end of the day. But complaints are rare. Runners flock to Kiptanui because he has won multiple world championships in distance steeplechases. They also admire his Mercedes.
Leg muscles loaded with slow-twitch fibers carry Kenyan runners to their status as the best marathon runners in the world. But it's fast-twitch prowess that drives the high-flying athletes on Russia's national gymnastics teams, dominant in the sport since the 1950s.
The team trains much of the year at remote Lake Krugloye, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Moscow. The camp, surrounded by snow-buried farmland in winter, is a run-down complex of institutional brick buildings. But the spacious training gym, outfitted with the most modern equipment, is as bright and warm as a greenhouse the day I arrive. Leonid Arkayev, one of the best and toughest coaches in any sport, oversees about a dozen shirtless male gymnasts as they go from parallel bars to high bar to horse to rings.
"They live here," he says. "We train three times a day, six to seven hours, no matter what. Severe, rigid discipline. That's one of the keys to our great success."
Like divers—or pianists—gymnasts must turn their complex movements into automatic motor memories through relentless repetition. As I watch them execute their rituals, Arkayev shouts comments to his protégé Yevgeny Podgorny, who has just finished a sequence on the parallel bars. "That's very good! Watch your legs! Don't catch the bar too soon."
Podgorny mounts the high bar and arcs around it, snapping out of the swing into a somersaulting turn. The next thing I know he's flat on his stomach on the mat. He stands up, shaking his head with disappointment. Arkayev yells something to him in Russian.
"That was a move of the highest difficulty," says Arkayev. "Now I've told him to stop. I can see he is mentally tired. We'll work on it later."
He points out another of Russia's brightest hopes, a five-foot-three, 22-year-old dynamo named Alexei Bondarenko. As he swings on the high bar, I ask Arkayev what makes him good.
"Look at his muscles! They are working muscles," he says—extremely strong and explosively powerful, but not bulky. Bondarenko walks over to us, and when I shake his hand, he feels light, as if he might lift off the floor and fly away. Bondarenko weighs about 120 pounds (54 kilograms), and that lightness gives him an advantage. It's a matter of physics—larger bodies are harder to accelerate and decelerate. Also, at 120 pounds (54 kilograms) Bondarenko is less likely to suffer joint and tendon damage than a heavier gymnast when he lands on the mat from a height of 15 feet (4.6 meters).
Size also explains why most elite female gymnasts are teenagers. Their body mass increases as they mature, making them more vulnerable to injury. And because women add less strength and muscle mass than men as they grow up, they are relatively weaker.
But strength and compact size are only part of the formula that makes an elite gymnast.
"When I was seven," Bondarenko tells me, "my mother brought me to the gym for the first time. I got very excited watching one of the senior boys performing. The coach said to my mother: 'Look at him. He has fire in his eyes. He will be a gymnast!' "
Bondarenko is also a crowd pleaser. "He is a handsome boy," explains his coach, Valeri Alfosov. "And he has a great aesthetic sense. That's important for gymnastics. You not only have to perform the movement correctly, you have to carry your body in the most beautiful way."
Fate did not bless Jason Wening with the same gifts as the Russian gymnasts. But glancing over at him as we're crouched on the blocks, about to begin a 100-yard (91-meter) freestyle race, I realize that more than any athlete I've met, this tousle-haired guy from Ann Arbor, Michigan, embodies the spirit of the world-class athlete. He knows what it means to conquer the unconquerable.
Wening, holder of six world records in disabled swimming, was born with multiple birth defects, and doctors amputated his deformed feet in childhood, leaving him with stumps just below the knee. One of his hands is, as he puts it, "goofy," meaning it has only three fingers.
"I got lucky with my parents," he says. "I am the oldest son of three, and they never treated me differently. When I was younger, I had a lot of difficulty coming to terms with why I was born the way I was. Who was to blame? Then I discovered disabled swimming, and I made this very conscious choice to be very good at it. I decided to set a world record."
Wening set his first record in 1991 at age 16. To compensate for his lower body, he focuses intensely on the most minute details of his stroke, down to the position of his pinky finger as it enters the water. He also swims at least three hours a day.
As our race begins, I have the advantage of a leg-driven spring into the water—Wening has to lunge off the blocks from a kneeling position. But as hard as I push, this driven swimmer with barely any kick sweeps past me and beats me by about ten yards (nine meters).
I tell him he's an inspiration, and he shrugs it off. "Why should I be more inspirational than any other athlete you've met?"
For one thing, no one pays disabled athletes tens of thousands of dollars for winning a gold medal. No one is paying big money for their endorsements or offering stipends so they can train full-time.
"Why do you do it?" I ask.
"For the simple pleasure," he says after some thought, "of forcing the body and mind I was given to the absolute edge of my capabilities. I'm fascinated by trying to go ever faster. And when I do, I get for just a moment a vision of the limitless potential of the human race."
A few weeks later, back home at swim practice, I find my own inspiration in Wening's words. I had been thinking for a while that my best swims were behind me and that my fastest time for the 100 free would remain just that.
"How fast can I go?" I start to wonder after a particularly painful sprint. It's not a simple question. The human form has its limitations. And I know the set of genes I got would never have made me world class in any sport. Yet the limits of human performance are set not just by our genes but by our heads as well. I get ready for the next sprint. How fast can I go this time? I'm the only one who can find out.
The Innovators Project
Three decades ago, the innovative physicist had a eureka moment that explained the universe.
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
A new study on marmoset monkeys offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth.
In the summer, southeastern Alaska's waters teem with humpback whales, and one of their most fascinating behaviors is bubble-net feeding.
Shop Our Space Collection
The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.