Olympic champions must train hard, but the right genes are also essential

By Laura Hambleton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; HE01

Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno trained for the Vancouver Olympics for two years. He sprinted up mountains, lifted weights, ran, biked and skated. He often worked out twice a day, sometimes more. In his first event of the 2010 Games, he won a silver medal.

But as the world heard about the training, dedication and drive that helped him become the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian, overlooked was a key factor in Ohno's success: his genes. Ohno is a ready-made package for speedskating. His compact body allows him to crouch low to the ice and skate around the rink at top speed.

"His short stature is advantageous for short-track speedskating because the distance he has to travel when he puts his hand on the ice for stability is less than your 6-foot-2-inch guy," said J.P. Hyatt, a Georgetown University assistant professor who studies skeletal muscle adaptations. "His advantage would be taking tight turns."

In a world where victory can be measured in a fraction of a second, what you're born with -- your size, shape, slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers, lung capacity, size of the heart's left ventricle and running mechanics, for instance -- can be what separates an Olympic athlete from an also-ran.

Consider the genes of swimmer Michael Phelps. During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, his genetic advantage was plain for all to see: His feet are almost flipperlike at size 14, his hands are huge and he is double-jointed -- attributes that earned him the nicknames (Half-Man Half-Fish and Deep-Sea Frog) for his prowess in the water.

"You can roughly identify body types that will be more advantageous for one discipline than another," said Jay T. Kearney, a performance physiologist and a high-performance director for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "In swimming freestyle or the butterfly, it is advantageous to be tall, to be thin back to front, to have wide hands, great big feet and flexibility."

Or, as Barry Boden, an orthopedic surgeon in Rockville with a specialty in sports medicine, put it: "Genetics is a kind of predictor. Body type does matter. Ninety-five percent of basketball and football players would not be playing if they weren't tall. They'd get selected out."

During a recent Georgetown class on physiological adaptation, Hyatt demonstrated the power of genetics. He projected a photo of the Bulgarian-Turkish weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu, known as the Pocket Hercules. "He was tiny" at less than 5 feet, Hyatt told the class. But "his size was an advantage. He didn't have to move the weights as far as a guy 6-foot-8." . Suleymanoglu won Olympic gold medals in 1988, 1992 and 1996.

Next Hyatt showed a photo of Eric Heiden, who won gold in five speedskating events, from sprints to long distance, in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. It's an achievement that has never been repeated.

"Eric Heiden is a freak of nature, in a good way," said Hyatt. He explained that Heiden is blessed with extraordinary genes and very probably an unusual ratio between fast-twitch muscle fiber, which sprinters and speedskaters need for short bursts of speed, and slow-twitch fibers, which don't fatigue easily and are what marathoners and long-distance bikers rely on.

"He was good at both sprinting and long distances. He must have really good aerobic fibers. If I had to make a guess, I think his muscle properties lean toward the aerobic, slow twitch, which gives him stamina. He uses his fast twitch for speed, training them to be more aerobic, and took advantage of his fatigue-resistant slow-twitch fibers. "

Heiden, like other top-flight athletes, made his good physiology better through the right exercise regime. Moreover, his body undoubtedly reacted more productively to intense workouts, increasing its endurance and capabilities more than the average body would, Hyatt said. That's just the luck of your genetic makeup.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong is another classic example, for many different reasons. For one, the Tour de France champion was born with an oversize heart, which can pump huge amounts of oxygen-rich blood through his body. His VO2 max, a measurement of the volume of oxygen that can be taken in and processed by his lungs, is unusually high. And his body is very good at shedding lactic acid from his stressed muscles.

Beyond these factors, according to the study by University of Texas professor Edward Coyle, the biker's edge also has to do with his ability to train smarter and harder than his competitors, improving upon a naturally well-oiled machine.

"Clearly, this champion embodies a phenomenon of both genetic natural selection and the extreme to which the human can adapt to endurance training performed for a decade or more in a person who is truly inspired," Coyle, who has been measuring Armstrong's performance for years, wrote in an analysis accompanying his study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Armstrong is not alone among elite athletes who train scientifically and with tremendous dedication: You don't get to that level without intense training and a fierce competitive spirit.

Even on Olympic rosters there are exceptions to the idea that success will go to the athlete with the perfect genetic mix, USOC's Kearney pointed out. "The sprinter Usain Bolt, who has shattered world records, doesn't fit the profile of a typical sprinter. I wouldn't have chosen him for my team. He is too linear." But Bolt, the Jamaican who won three gold medals in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, was clearly blessed with the right kind of muscle fibers and mechanics, as is the case with any great sprinter.

In fact, when Andrew Valmon, head track coach for the University of Maryland, recruits runners, he looks first for innate talent and running mechanics. Valmon won gold medals on 4x400-meter track relay teams in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics.

"When I am looking for a diamond -- the kid going to the next level -- I look at the way he comes off the track. I look at how his foot strikes the ground. I look at running form," Valmon said. "In basketball, if you work really, really hard, you can get good. [But] more is not better in track. Efficiency is the key. For track it is a fitness level, and you have to have talent to throw, to jump or to sprint."

Yet, he, too, emphasizes that a true champion can only get so far running on genes. As Boden, the Rockville orthopedist said, "They have to . . . have the passion and know how to protect their bodies" to avoid injury on the one hand, and the fortitude to train relentlessly on the other. "If you have the genetic capabilities and if you are driven, maybe then you can be really great. You become very narrow-minded. Like the greatest artists, that is all you do."

Athletes also need the smarts, competitiveness and confidence to achieve at the highest level: "Good athletes have to have the mental ability to size up their opponent and learn from their weaknesses," Boden said. "Michael Jordan knew the court; he knew everyone's weaknesses. He was naturally good at it. You have to know how to win."

Finally, as Kearney pointed out, technology also makes a difference. For instance, "the biathlon has two components: cross-country skiing and shooting. There's the physical and the mental -- and there's the equipment. How good are your skis? What is their stiffness? What is their surface? How did you put on your wax?"

Great genes, excellent equipment, unrelenting drive, mental toughness: All are hallmarks of champions.

So, too, is luck.

In the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, two young men with extraordinary genes for the sport of short-track speedskating faced off in the 1,500-meter final.

One was Ohno, the other was South Korea's Dong-Sung Kim. Like Ohno, Kim is short and powerfully built, perfect for his sport. Near the final turn, the two skaters bumped. Kim finished first, Ohno second, but the South Korean lost his gold medal to the American when the judges determined he had deliberately blocked Ohno.

Now, Kim coaches eager young speedskaters in Wheaton, Arlington and Laurel. He's looking for the next him: a skater with good genes and one "who is a diligent skater, who works hard and exercises double of the others."

"That skater," said Kim, "will be good."

Hambleton is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker in Chevy Chase.

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