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Making Winter Sports Olympic Champions out of Australian “Beach Babes” [Excerpt]

In The Sports Gene David Epstein explores what separates elite athletes from the rest of us

From The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein (in paperback April 29), in agreement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © David Epstein, 2014. In this excerpt Epstein details the Australian success with “talent transfer,” in which talented athletes were brought to new sports they had never tried before.

In August 2004, a small group of scientists at the venerable Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) bet all their chips on the primacy of general, non-sport-specific athleticism.

The AIS scientists had a year and a half to try to qualify a woman for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in the winter sport of skeleton, in which the athlete begins by running down the ice with one or two hands on a sled and then, in a leap fairly like the disco move "the worm," gets on board and careens down an ice-coated track face-first on her stomach at more than seventy miles per hour.

The Aussie scientists had never even seen the sport, but they had learned that the beginning sprint accounts for about half of the variation in total race time. So they announced a nationwide call for women who could fit snugly on a tiny sled and who could sprint. Thus began Australia's Winter Olympics equivalent of American Idol, and it would draw commensurate media attention Down Under.

Based on written applications, twenty-six athletes were invited to the AIS in Canberra in southeastern Australia to undergo physical tests in the hope of earning one of ten funded training spots. The women came from track, gymnastics, water skiing, and surf lifesaving, a popular sport in Australia that mixes open-water rowing and kayaking, surf paddling, swimming, and footraces in the sand. Not one woman had heard of skeleton, much less tried it.

Five of the ten spots were filled solely based on the 30-meter sprint, the other five by consensus of the scientists and AIS coaches, based on how well the athletes did in a dry land test during which they had to jump on a sled fitted with wheels.

As far as the world skeleton community was concerned, the project was a doomed sideshow. "Everyone in the sport told us, 'You guys will never succeed,’ ” says Jason Gulbin, then a physiologist at the AIS. “They told us, ‘It’s a real feel thing. It’s an art. You need time in this sport.’ The biggest naysayers were really the coaches from other countries.”

The women of the AIS project certainly had no feel for the ice, but they were outstanding all-around athletes. Melissa Hoar had won a world championship title in the beach-racing category of surf lifesaving. Emma Sheers had been a world water skiing champion. “It was a real curiosity,” Gulbin says, “to dump basically beach babes in skeleton who had never done it before.”

After selection, it was time to find out whether the women could actually get down the ice, bones intact. The scientists swallowed their nerves and headed to Calgary at the start of the winter season for the first runs on ice. It didn’t take a Ph.D. to evaluate the results.

Within three slides, the newbies were recording the fastest runs in Australian history, faster than the previous national record holder, who had had years of training. “That first week on the track, it was all over,” says Gulbin. “The writing was on the wall.”

So much for needing a feel for the ice. Suddenly, the initial helpfulness became standoffishness as rival skeleton athletes and coaches realized they stood to be displaced or embarrassed by women they had previously viewed as rank novices.

Ten weeks after she first set foot on ice, Melissa Hoar bested about half the field at the world under-twenty-three skeleton championships. (She won the title in her next try.) And beach sprinter Michelle Steele made it all the way to the Winter Olympics in Italy.

The AIS scientists chronicled the program’s success in an aptly titled paper: “Ice Novice to Winter Olympian in 14 Months.”

Australia, a world sports powerhouse, has thrived off talent identification and “talent transfer,” the switching of athletes between sports. In 1994, as part of the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the country launched its National Talent Search program. Children ages fourteen to sixteen were examined in school for body size and tested for general athleticism. Australia, home to 19.1 million people at the time, won 58 medals in Sydney. That's 3.03 medals for every million citizens, nearly ten times the relative haul of the United States, which took home 0.33 medals per million Americans.

As part of the Australian talent search, some athletes were ushered away from the sports in which they had experience into unfamiliar ones that better suited them. In 1994, Alisa Camplin, who had previously competed in gymnastics, track and field, and sailing, was converted into an aerial skier. Camplin was an outstanding all-around athlete but had never even seen snow. On her first jump ever she broke a rib. On her second, she hit a tree. "Everyone thought it was a joke," Camplin told Australia's Channel Nine television network. "They told me I was too old. They told me I started too late." But by 1997, Camplin was competing on the World Cup circuit. At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, despite breaking both her ankles six weeks earlier, Camplin won the gold medal. Even after that victory, watching the sparsely experienced Camplin on skis was like watching a giraffe on roller skates. She crushed her victory flowers when she fell trying to ski down the mountain to the gold medal winner's press conference.

The successes with talent transfer attest to the fact that a nation succeeds in a sport not only by having many athletes who practice prodigiously at sport-specific skills, but also by getting the best all­ around athletes into the right sports in the first place. Members of the Belgian men's national field hockey team, for instance, were found to average just greater than 10,000 hours of accumulated practice, thou­ sands more than players on the Dutch team. But the Belgian team is consistently mediocre—the Cleveland Browns of world field hockey—while the Dutch, who draw superior athletes to the sport, are a perennial world powerhouse.

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