How the U.S. women's cycling team transformed itself with technology
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, May, 2015. Tom Taylor. Three months out from the London 2012 Olympic Games, all available data pointed to one thing: the U.S. women’s track cycling pursuit team had no chance, at least not if it stuck by the book. Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed, and Lauren Tamayo didn’t have the money or the manpower available to do things the traditional way.
So they tore up the training manual and turned instead to another set of data: their own. Perhaps, if they knew absolutely everything they could know about their own bodies—numbers gleaned from fitness trackers, medical devices and DNA testing—they could find enough of an edge to bring home a medal. Personal Gold, a documentary premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 16, tells the story of that experiment, and the hypothesis-affirming silver medals they won. It also offers a hint of where science might be taking sports, and what may be in store for Rio 2016 and beyond.
Before London, the U.S. women hadn’t won a track medal in 20 years. In 2000, USA Cycling moved to dissolve its amateur programs and reassign resources in search of professional success. Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, and Floyd Landis were American cycling, not a handful of amateurs competing in velodromes. Three years before London, the International Olympic Committee also cut the individual pursuit from the track competition. Hammer, then a two-time world champion in that event, was stranded.
Undeterred, she found a pair of road cyclists, Bausch and Tamayo, to contest the three-person team pursuit. At the Pan Am Championships in Aguascaliente, Mexico in 2010, they set a world record time of 3:19.569, but then they seemed to stall. Australia and Great Britain, world powers in track cycling, drove that time down as they ramped up for London. In April 2012, the British trio hit 3:15.720 at the World Championships in Melbourne. The Australian team came in second, and the U.S. finished a distant fifth place with a time of 3:21.765. “We have to make up five or six seconds,” Bausch worries in the film, “which is a lifetime on the track.”
To strengthen the team, Hammer convinced two-time Olympic sprinter Jennie Reed to come out of retirement—the four cyclists would compete in training for the three spots on the team—but their times seemed to go up, not down. They could no longer break 3:20.
While the British track team was busy burning through a budget of $40 million, the American team had next to nothing. “No mechanic, no soigneur, no masseuse,” says Brandon Maddon, Reed’s husband, in the documentary, “Ben [Sharp, the coach], one man on the ground.” The team even had to bring its own toilet paper along to the velodrome they were training at in Mallorca, Spain. And the quartet’s husbands had to quickly learn how to service and tune their partners’ bikes.
Photo: Leslie Rockitter
n desperation, Reed called Sky Christopherson, a former USA Cycling teammate. The year before, after a decade away from competitive cycling, and after suffering a heart attack scare in December 2009, Sky had set a master’s world record, 10.49 seconds, in the 200-meter velodrome sprint. His return to form had been based on a data-driven training approach inspired by Dr. Eric Topol, digital medicine researcher and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute. “If you can get the data, big data, on each individual about what makes them tick,” says Topolin the documentary, “that is … going to unlock particular secrets for them.”
Sky and his wife, Tamara, an ex-Olympic kayaker, flew out to Spain. And they also enlisted a ragtag team of volunteers to help out: physicians, a biologist, a geneticist, a sleep scientist, a data scientist, a coder, and even an ex-Navy Seal commander.
That volunteer army recorded the athletes’ blood glucose levels and blood oxygen saturation with medical devices, filmed them to analyze their behavior, monitored their exposure to ambient light and temperature levels, tracked brain waves during sleep, and even sequenced their DNA. “Train, analyze, eat, stretch, massage, train, analyze, eat,” says Kirk Bausch, Dotsie’s husband, on camera. “It was constant.”
The amount of data the team was collecting was overwhelming, though. So Sky reached out to Stefan Groschupf at data analytics firm Datameer. With Groschupf’s help they could process the huge volume of information and search for connections. They found, for example, that the athletes were getting more deep sleep when their bodies were at a lower temperature, and that more deep sleep translated into more power on the track the following day. So they brought in air conditioning units and water-cooled mattresses. “If an athlete can get better deep sleep, that’s where our bodies release human growth hormone and testosterone naturally,” Sky explains in the film. Instead of boosting those chemicals with doping, they used data.
But the experiment didn’t always run smoothly. “We’re doing the same thing and we’re getting slower,” Reed complains in frustration eight weeks out from London. And the documentary shows what it was like to be inside this high-stakes training camp. The four riders were training together to go faster as a collective whole, but only three of them would eventually be picked. Emotions began to fray as that final selection test—three full Olympic race simulations—approached.
In Olympic qualifying everything seemed to go wrong again. Bausch, Hammer, and Reed lost their cohesion and crossed the line separately. But something had stuck from the work in Spain. “They rode the fastest they’ve ever ridden,” says Adam Laurent, a former US track cyclist who had helped advise the team via Skype, in the film. “It’s a national record. It didn’t look pretty at the finish, but they did pretty darn good.” Their 3:19.406 was also good enough for second in the rankings and a semifinal against Australia.
Again things seemed to go wrong in that matchup, at least at first. The team stayed close on the track against Australia, but steadily fell back lap after lap. Then they clicked into a different gear, slowly clawing back the distance lost, and nosing ahead by less than a tenth of a second at the line.
And those silver medals weren’t just the first medals for the women’s track team in two decades, but part of just a handful of cycling medals won by Team USA at London, all by women. Stateside, USA Cycling was in deep trouble. The most recognizable face of the sport for the past decade, Lance Armstrong, was under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And by providing evidence against Armstrong, former teammates such as Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie had admitted their own doping records. All of the five men’s road cyclists that went in their place were discretionary picks: none met the automatic qualification criteria. The golden era of U.S. cycling looked like it had been a fake.
Maybe, though, Hammer, Reed, Bausch, and Tamayo had found a silver lining, a route back for USA Cycling, and perhaps other sports too. Personal Gold offers a chance to see what an amateur but high-tech and fair approach could look like. “There’s a better way forward, there’s a new way forward,” Christopherson says near the end of the film, “and it does not include performance enhancing drugs.”