Olympian Cam McEvoy: putting science into swimming

Olympian Cam McEvoy: putting science into swimming
August 08, 2016 at 02:08pm

Elite swimmers talk about how they are “feeling” the water as their bodies glide through the H20 molecules. Australian Olympian Cameron McEvoy is “thinking” the water, too, and from myriad angles. A physics and applied mathematics student at Queensland’s Griffith University, McEvoy will identify a problem area with his stroke and come up with “five, six or seven different solutions to experiment with”, he says. “That application of the scientific method … slowly gets me that little bit better each time I get into the water.”

Cameron McEvoy

He will apply the graceful learnings from those experiments at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in the 50m and 100m freestyle individual races, and also in the 4 x 200m freestyle and the 4 x 100m medley relays. With scientific rigour, McEvoy pulled out of the 200m contest, even though he’d earned a spot, deciding to focus on the 100m, given that he’s the world-record holder for that race in a textile suit, with a time of 47.04 seconds. (Brazilian César Cielo set the standing world record of 46.91 in 2009, in a then-legal but since-banned super suit.) Australia hasn’t won Olympic Games gold medal in the men’s 100m freestyle since Michael Wenden took the medal in Mexico City in 1968.

McEvoy, who lists his height in hydrogen atoms (more than 17 billion, which roughly equals  6 ft or 1.83m) and enjoys discussing hypothetical scenarios around the speed of light, could no doubt posit some interesting mathematical equations around the gold drought that he hopes to break.

“Not only is Cameron a great athlete, but he has a genuine passion and interest in technology and science,” says Geoff Culbert, president and chief executive of GE Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. “He’s a great role model for children, proving that you can have a passion for both sports and science.”

A visit to GE’s Global Research Center (GRC) in Rio de Janeiro figures large among Cam’s plans for when he’s finished his Olympic Games campaign. “GE is one of the first companies to establish purely research-based facilities around the world,” says McEvoy of the company’s nine GRCs. “From a scientific point of view, that’s extremely important … GE being one of the pioneers … and pushing innovative science along … that’s something really special.”

Cameron McEvoy

As to where science meets sport, McEvoy tells GE Reports that, “the pure application of science to sport over the past hundred years or so has seen many sports improve drastically”. And yet the 22-year-old regards swimming as being at “a very primitive stage”, in terms of the advances that science can help the sport achieve (aside from those super suits…). “We’re going to look back at this period now, when there hasn’t been much intervention of science, and just wonder why we didn’t do that … swimming has a lot more progress to go. We might be seeing people do times in the future which are right now thought to be purely, madly, impossible. So I like that.”

Although he took a gap year in 2012 to train for the London 2012 Olympic Games—his first, at the age of 17—McEvoy has since almost completed his undergraduate degree while training for Rio. A competitive swimmer since he was five years old, he reasons that juggling tertiary study and swimming is easier than doing the same juggle with high school work: “The work that I’m doing at uni is a bit more intense, but I don’t have to be there all day!” He simply loves mathematics and physics, and even in that gap year, he had time to dive into the theories of Einstein and Newton. “I got really motivated,” he says. “If I got to understand even 10% of the theories they put together, it was almost as if I got to be inside their brain … to know what the smartest humans were thinking at some point in their life.”

Once McEvoy has finished his undergraduate degree, he’ll move on to post-grad studies. “I want to place myself at the forefront of modern physics and try to make some type of budge to the bubble of knowledge that humans have… If I can make little dent … learning new things about what the universe does … that would be something really special.”

The swimmer also looks to the universe to centre himself before a big race, using a sci-fi trick: he imagines aliens looking down on the competition pool with puzzled expressions on their unearthly visages. “For Rio … I’ll imagine it when I’m stepping up … for the 100m freestyle. From our perspective, I’m diving in, I’m swimming, I’m trying to race the best I can. But hypothetically, if aliens happened to observe this 100m freestyle, they would think that we’re doing the most random thing in the world.” He says they’d be seeing this previously unknown lifeform diving into “a huge hole in the ground, filled with this liquid … and there are all these other life forms cheering for you… The Olympic Games is a huge event … but when you think about it like that, it takes away a little bit of the nerves when you go up to race. And it reinforces that it isonly swimming, and there’s much more to life outside of the pool.”

See you in the lab, Cam!

This article was originally posted on GE Reports Australia.

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