A year ago in the London 2012 Summer Olympic games, a teenage Chinese female swimmer Ye Shiwen exploded into the world’s public eye with an extremely powerful demonstration of her swimming ability when she swam the last 50 meters of a 400 meters IM in 28.93 seconds. This time was even faster than the men’s performance where Ryan Lochte swam the same last 50 meters in in just around 29.10 seconds. The amazing speed she put up in the last 50 meters was so fast that many people thought that she had to been using performance enhancing drugs.
Ye Shiwen denied the claims and said that her swimming speed came form just ordinary hard work and dedication.
So how was she able to do such a thing, beating one of the world’s current best swimmers? As a height researchers, I would say that it was from her rapid growth spurts which she had experienced over the last 2 years. This idea has been proposed by many people, including a couple of former world olympic gold medalist swimmers.
“…Phil Lutton pointed out that Ye had grown from 160cm at the time of the 2010 Games to 172cm at the 2012 Olympics, and that “that sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement”. Former Olympic swimming champions Ian Thorpe and Adrian Moorhouse said that they had also improved their personal bests due to growth spurts…”
This shows that over a 2 year span, Ye Shiwen increased her height by 12 cms, which converts to around 4.72 inches, or almost a 5 inches of height increase. For a Chinese girl who was in the age of 14 to 16 from 2010-2012, this is a very large growth spurt. At 172 cms tall, Ye Shiwen would be considered “tall” compared to the average Chinese female.
We must remember that during puberty, not only do men and women go through a slight increase in height growth, they also develop muscle size. The body starts developing hair between the legs, in the armpits, and other areas of the body. From the WebMD website for Teen Girls , it says…
Increase in Height and Weight
Starting at around age 9, girls begin to gain about 17% to 18% of their adult height. If someone has commented that you are “all hands and feet,” it’s true! Your limbs grow first, then your trunk. Most girls grow fastest about six months before they start their first period(menarche).
From the Wikipedia article on Puberty…
On average, girls begin puberty at ages 10–11; boys at ages 11–12. Girls usually complete puberty by ages 15–17, while boys usually complete puberty by ages 16–17. The major landmark of puberty for females is menarche, the onset of menstruation, which occurs on average between ages 12–13…
Most people know that when teenage boys are going through puberty, their bodies actually develop increased muscularity. This means that the muscle size in their body increases, making them stronger, and bigger in terms of width.
However the thing I am trying to say in this post is that girls seem to also gain increased muscularity and increased muscle size in puberty. This would explain why Ye Shiwen was able to increase her time so quickly.
The Olympic games is a very exciting time and event for swimmers who only get a short at a medal every 4 years. The rush of hormones when a person, but most especially a teenager growing through puberty, might signal off the extra burst of energy. The adrenaline starts getting released and the blood is pumped through the heart and body at a much faster rate signaling some event where the person must be at their peak physical state to perform.
So is that it? Can Ye Shiwen’s performance be explained by the hormones and growth spurt she had along with the excitement of the Olympic Games causing a rush and spike in adrenaline leading to a insane performance of speed?
I would guess that there is a third factor that people might not have predict which I wanted to propose, something beyond just growth spurts, hormones, and adrenaline. It comes from a body variation which creates freakish athletes who are so above their counterparts.
A similar situation would be what happened with the racing horse Secretariat. In the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Secretariat managed to complete a 4 round race where each quarter mile, he ran faster. From wikipedia…
“…On his way to a still-standing track record (1:592⁄5), Secretariat ran each quarter-mile segment faster than the one before it. The successive quarter-mile times were 251⁄5, 24, 234⁄5, 232⁄5, and 23…”
“A necropsy revealed his heart was significantly larger than that of an ordinary horse. An extremely large heart is a trait that occasionally occurs in Thoroughbreds, linked to a genetic condition passed down via the dam line, known as the “x-factor”
“Based on Sham’s measurement, and having necropsied both horses, he estimated Secretariat’s heart probably weighed 22 pounds (10.0 kg), or about two-and-three-quarters times as large as that of the average horse.”
The case of Secretariat shows that the reason why he seemed to have been so much better than other thoroughbred was the size of his heart, so that meant that he was able to pump blood and oxygen to the whole body much faster than other horse.
It is a reasonable assumption to make that almost all Olympic Athletes managed to reach the level of competition that they have from having some sort of physical genetic advantage given from birth. For some people, even with the hardest of work and dedication they would not be able to perform some physical action as another person who don’t have to try as hard due to traits they had from just good genetics.
I would guess that it had to be a combination of more than just the massive growth spurt Ye Shiwen had as well as the excitement of of the event, and she having a much larger heart than average. This is the reason why she was able to swim so much faster at the end.
In terms of height and size, even with her near 5 inches of growth in height in recent years, Ye Shiwen would still be considered average in stature for star olympic female swimmers. High level competition swimming is dominated by taller than average swimmers. So she is not dominating over her opponent by size. She has the youth in being younger, but younger females mean less body mass to use.
Let’s look back at the way hairs seem to develop in odd places in puberty. I am not an endocrinologist but it would be reasonable to assume that the mechanics on hair develops is that there is an increase in vascularization to certain progenitor cells in the epithelial skin tissues the increase in blood flow causes the hairs to develop.
In the same way, the puberty in Ye triggered not just the bone lengthening she had to become taller, but also means that her larger than average heart was finally allowed to pump at the high level and potential that she could.
The way to think about it is imagining the athlete’s heart as an engine, which at the end of a racecar race seems to be faster than ever before. The unique design of that heart/engine means that at certain points of a race, usually at the end, when average sized hearts of other racers is finally losing the ability to pump sufficient oxygen to the body to sustain that high level of swimming intensity, lead to sever lactic acid buildup and muscle cramps, the person with the larger heart pumps into overdrive leading to it’s natural potential which has never been fully utilized since it is almost never put in those types of events where the maximum level of performance is needed.
Just something to think about when the 2016 Summer Olympics come around.