Saturday, 11 January 2014

Maths in Sport - Ellie Cole

An interview with... Ellie Cole

How good would it be to go into an international competition, compete against your childhood hero and come away with a gold medal? In 2012, Australian swimmer Ellie Cole went to the London Paralympic Games and came away with 4 gold medals and 2 bronze, broke Australian and World records and beat her childhood inspiration Natalie du Toit of South Africa. Ellie's events include 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 4 x 100m freestyle relay and 4 x 100m medley relay.

Ellie visited our school in 2012 to talk about her personal history and her battle with cancer. An inspiration to all who heard her, Ellie told of us how she had been diagnosed with a sarcoma when she was very young and had to have her leg amputated at the age of 3. 

Ellie is an amazing and accomplished young woman who very kindly agreed to participate in the "Maths in Sport" project and share her experiences with us all. You can read more about Ellie and the "Kick Sarcoma" organisation that she is patron of via the link at the bottom of this post.

The questions and answers:

Describe what maths lessons were like for you at school.
Honestly, maths was not my strong suit at school. I always struggled at maths and dreaded walking through the doors and sitting through a few hours of something that didn't come naturally to me. My dad is an engineer and uses maths in his everyday life so he always just assumed I would be a natural at maths like he was. I was forever being tutored by him.

When you left school, did you expect to be using any of the maths that you were taught ever again?
I always remember sitting in maths class and learning things that I never thought I would use. I am doing Exercise Science at school and all I study now is maths and physics. I am now enjoying it more because it is being applied to something that I have a passion for. 

How good do you need to be at mental arithmetic to do calculations in your head as you go up and down the pool?
To be honest it's all done for you by your coaches! They tell you what your stroke count needs to be and what times you have to swim each lap in. Over time, you learn what that feels like in the water and adapt to it. I think swimming is executed by how it feels. Subconsciously, your body calculates it naturally. 

How aware are you of angles in your technique ­ angle of a dive, angle of arms, angle of hands etc?
While swimming at the Australian Institute of Sport, I was fortunate enough to have access to world-class biomechanists who devoted hours of time to analyse my technique. Everything was about angles in swimming, particularly the catch in your freestyle. I work as a High Performance Swim Coach in Sydney now and am forever explaining to my athletes the importance of angles in swimming. 

When you are racing, how much is "mathematical thinking and calculating" and how much is "swim as fast as you can"?
If you are in the right mind-set for a race it all comes down to something I like to call 'auto-pilot'. The reason we train 6 hours a day is so that your race plan becomes second nature and your body can execute it without your mind having to think. Usually, when you ask an elite swimmer what they think about when they race they will not be able to remember. The mathematical calculations are done months beforehand. For example, in a 100m Freestyle race the first 50m should be done approximately 2 seconds faster than the second lap. The second lap is obviously slower because you don't have the dive and you factor in fatigue. Your race plans are also dependant on stroke rate, distance per stroke and effort.

In a race like 50m freestyle, do you count the strokes for the lap and do you know where you should be for each stroke? 
Usually, you should know your stroke rate like the back of your hand. Sometimes, while swimming at 5am I like to swim with my eyes closed and I usually know when to turn because of my stroke count and feel for the distance. In a 50m freestyle I don't usually focus on my stroke count. My attention usually goes towards stroke efficiency and power.

Do you keep an eye on the clock as you go up and down the pool in training and in races?
Absolutely. The clock is always something that will give you instant feed-back.  In races, you try not to but sometimes you might have a sneaky peek and regret it when you realise that you just ruined your body position in the water. 

Have your coaches ever used maths and physics to explain your stroke?
That usually comes down to biomechanists. Unfortunately, not all athletes have a biomechanist on their team. Junior and development swimmers usually rely on their coaches to improve their technique. It can sometimes be difficult to assess a stroke from pool-deck however a coach can still explain the importance of angles from the deck. 

Do you look at statistics much to analyse your training and races?
I am a big statistics fan when it comes to racing! After every race I am issued with a race report that displays a graph with time, stroke rate and distance per stroke. It also displays every other number you can think of. You can then assess where the weak part of your race is and make changes to it for the final. Its such a great tool to perfect your race plan. 

Thanks Ellie for being a part of "Maths in Sport" - you are a legend and a great Australian athlete. 

Website -
Twitter - @EllieVCole
Facebook - Ellie-Cole

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