i2eye with olympian Catriona Le May Doan

i2eye with olympian Catriona Le May Doan

Le May Doan shares her thoughts on the impact of science on sport
August 6, 2008
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High-tech training, testing, and equipment helped two-time Olympic Champion Catriona Le May Doan achieve the pinnacle of amateur sporting success. Since retiring from competitive speed skating in 2003, Le May Doan has continued to stay actively involved in sport. She participated on the Vancouver Olympics bid team and board. Now she’s a board member for both the Calgary Olympic Development Association and the Canadian Sport Centre. Factor in charity work, public speaking, representing the Olympic Oval, and keeping up with two young kids and a husband, and Le May Doan has a pretty busy “retirement.”

This past April, Le May Doan was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame. At this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games, she will continue her broadcasting work with the CBC. InnovationCanada.ca caught up with the Olympian to talk about the impact of science on her career.

InnovationCanada.ca (IC): What role did science play in your athletic achievements?

Catriona Le May Doan (CLMD): It was a huge part. The research side affects everything, not just the skating and training. It’s all part of a four-year plan. Every single workout is in the grand scheme of four years. So when you adjust something, it’s not just adjusting that day, it’s adjusting all parts. I’m thankful I didn’t have to do that part—figuring out the program. I had the easy part—do the training.

IC: Can you give us an example?

CLMD: We knew, down to the exact millilitre, what the muscle content of my leg needed to be when I was the most efficient in my push. It took many years of trial and error with programs. The lab testing was crucial to measure power output, oxygen capacity, force of start and speed. I have results from when I was 14 to 33. I can see my own progression as well as the progression of the program design.

IC: How important is research for the continued success of athletes?

CLMD: It’s huge. And I’m talking from five years ago. It continues to be more and more important. Jeremy [Wotherspoon] and I went out to the National Research Council and went in the wind tunnel to test our skinsuits. But they’re doing so much more now than when I was skating, with the skinsuits, skates, all the programming, and diet.

IC: Now, with some distance from competing, what would you do to keep Canada competitive?

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CLMD: There needs to be continued work on equipment and program testing. The problem is we don’t necessarily have the funds to keep that research going. We’re talking hundredths of a second against the rest of the world, right? We want to be competitive so we need to continue to make that a priority.

IC: How do you think Canada compares in sport science internationally?

CLMD: I think we’re pretty advanced from what I saw in my training. In terms of technology, the U.S. has so many more resources available to it—I mean, we can’t compete with NASA. But when I looked at my competitors from overseas and the stuff I knew about our training programs, it baffled me that these athletes were still training like it was the mid-80s. Their mentality was just stuck there. It depends on the sport and the people whether Canada is considered advanced or not.

IC: Do you think the average Canadian understands high-performance sport?

CLMD: I don’t think the education is there to explain how in-depth a program is, and that’s nobody’s fault. People don’t understand a four-year program, and yet, most athletes don’t train for four years, they train for 24. Most people just don’t think of that. So we need to educate people on the scientific end—you don’t just go out there and skate laps and hope you’re going to be the fastest. It’s so advanced it’s incredible.

IC: Why is this understanding important?

CLMD: Without it, we won’t have success as a country or at the Olympics, and we won’t then have role models for the young. If we don’t have people researching—these scientists who go to school forever who are the best in the world—athletes will be unable to succeed.

IC: What impact is science having on the Beijing Olympics?

CLMD: The big thing is air quality. Most teams have researchers on board to try to give them breathing apparatus that cleans the air as they train and prepare for their event. There are different vests to keep an athlete’s body cool so they don’t overheat. Those are big things relating directly to the athletes for the Games, but I think we’ll see advancements in all areas. Just look to the Paralympics. The equipment, the way they train—it’s amazing to see the advancements they’re making for lighter, more efficient equipment that’s easier to maneuvre. From an athlete’s perspective, you have this whole team of people working on a bunch of little things, but no matter how much research and development you do, you still have to work your butt off.