Cheating the Wind

When a thousandth of a second counts, athletes travel to San Diego.

In the sport of luge, the difference between a medal and a 4th place finish can come down to a mere thousandth of a second.

That fact brought the U.S. Olympic Luge Team to San Diego to test new equipment, new sled designs and new aerodynamic suits this week in a specially designed low-wind tunnel.

Reigning World Champion Erin Hamlin, along with two-time Olympic medalist Mark Grimmette, put on their gear and tried to lay as still as possible Monday for researchers who collected data at speeds between 60 and 80 mph.

“The San Diego low-speed wind tunnel is the best facility there is, with the best balances, the best staff and the methodology is second-to-none,” said Gordy Sheer, director of marketing and sponsorship for USA Luge.

Sheer, also an Olympic silver medalist, stopped racing nine years ago. Now he’s working with athletes to help them gain any advantage in speed. What he referred to as “cheating the wind.”

“This is where you want to be if you’re testing aerodynamic equipment in sports,” he said.

The “where” he’s talking about is the tunnel at the San Diego Air & Space Technology Center.

Athletes worked with staff at the center to run four fabric tests Monday as well as tests on several items Sheer wouldn’t disclose.

While we were there, Grimmette suited up, helmet and all, and lay down on his back while researchers ran test after test. To be precise, it’s vital that the athlete take part.

“When you’re testing fabrics… it’s better to use an athlete as opposed to a dummy,“ Sheer said. “You never get it quite right with a mannequin.”

There’s a lot of controversy in swimming right now over fabrics.

German swimmer Paul Biedermann made news around the world when he beat Michael Phelps and broke a world record in July.

Biedermann wore an Arena X-Glide, one of those polyurethane suits that is generally considered faster than the Speedo LZR Racer, the once-revolutionary suit Phelps wore.

The high-tech bodysuits are being banned by the sport’s governing body beginning in 2010.

“As a sport, they’re about 15 years behind us,” Sheer said. “Maybe some of those swimming guys should come and talk to us.”

As the American teams gear up for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, there will be more and more tests and training and San Diego will help in that quest for gold.

Next up – skeleton athletes. They’re scheduled to visit the same facility tomorrow to test their equipment.

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