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When Hundredths of a Second Count

Vassar Associate Head Track Coach Justin Harris has never experienced the thrill – or terror – of hurtling down an icy track at 80 miles per hour. But when the athletes of the U.S. Olympic Bobsled and Skeleton Team compete in the Winter Games in South Korea next year, they’ll be armed with some of Harris’s scientific data as they burst off the starting line.

Associate Head Track Coach Justin Harris with the mock sled he built to research accelerationPhoto: Karl Rabe

Drawing on biomechanics research he gathered while earning a master’s degree at Vassar, Harris has been working with the U.S. athletes on the National Team to maximize their speed as they start the race. Harris admits he doesn’t know much about the intricacies of racing a bobsled down the track, but he does know something about the physics and physiology of running. “For those first 30 or 40 yards, before they get on their sleds, they’re basically sprinters,” he explains.

Photo: Dietmar Reker

The two- and four-person bobsleds weigh hundreds of pounds, while the skeleton is a tiny platform of steel and plastic carrying one athlete just a few inches above the ice. But the physics involved as the athletes run alongside their sleds and hop on is similar in both sports, and their objective is the same as a sprinter’s on a track: to run as fast as they can and hit top speed as quickly as possible. Harris, whose title with the U.S. National Team is volunteer researcher and push start coach, works with the athletes on their foot placement, distance from the sled and other variables as they search for ways to maximize their acceleration.

While earning his master’s degree, Harris gathered some of his data on how runners succeed by building a mock sled out of plywood and rollerblade wheels attached to a device that measures acceleration. Since joining the Bobsled and Skeleton Team, he’s been refining his data as the athletes test their techniques on actual tracks.

During Spring Break, Harris will join the team at a competition in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the site of next year’s Olympics. Harris says the data he gathers there will be especially helpful as the team trains for the Winter Games, but he adds that much of his research is still inconclusive. “I wish I could say I had definitive data that says, ‘This is the way it should be done,’” he says. “I’m still working towards that goal, but as I keep crunching the data, the athletes continue to be open to my ideas even though I don’t have all the answers.”

Photo: Dietmar Reker

Harris says he’s been pleased, and somewhat surprised, by how graciously these elite athletes have accepted him. “It’s been great to get the feedback and acceptance from them,” he says. “Men and women who have won Olympic medals could have questioned what a neophyte like me might have had to offer. But athletes at that level are searching for that extra one- or two-hundredths of a second, so they’re open to anything that might give them an edge.”

The coaches of the National Team say they’re grateful for Harris’ science-based input. “Justin has been a fantastic addition to our team,” says Tuffy Latour, head coach of the skeleton team. “His work ethic is unmatched; he’s really fit in with the coaching staff and the athletes. His expertise has enabled our athletes to try new techniques in how they run and push the sled.”

Coach Mike Dione and Crew Chief Richard Laubenstein watching as Kehri Jones (brakewoman) and Elana Meyers Taylor (driver) prepare for take-off at the World ChampionshipsPhoto: Dietmar Reker

Latour says finding ways to save tiny fractions of a second at the start of the race pays off handsomely at the finish. “Every one-hundredth of a second you save at the top translates into a three-hundredths-of-a-second advantage at the bottom, and in this sport, that’s a lot,” he says.

Latour noted that in the 1988 Olympics, the U.S. four-man bobsled team lost out on a bronze medal by two one-hundredths of a second over a span of four runs. “Those hundredths always matter, and that’s why Justin’s role on our team is so important,” he says.

Harris credits his master’s degree advisors, Biology Prof. John Long and Psychology Prof. Jay Bean, and his student researchers, Mollie Schear ’16 and Kyle Estrada ’17, with helping him compile the data for the U.S. team. And he’s grateful for the support he’s received for this novel project from his bosses in the Athletics Department. Harris says Athletic Director Michelle Walsh and James McCowan, Head Coach of Cross Country and Track and Field, have encouraged him wholeheartedly.

“Justin has always been great at thinking outside the box, looking for other perspectives and angles that can expand his understanding,” McCowan says. “When he saw how little research had been done on the skeleton push, he confronted a problem no one else was solving. His work with the Olympic team has made him a better track coach, and it has shown our students the athletic version of the intellectual curiosity that Vassar promotes.”

At the World Championships in Koenigssee, Germany, in February, Elana Meyers Taylor and Kehri Jones won the women’s bobsled title while Jamie Gruebel Poser and Aja Evans won the bronze for Team USA. Read the story

Photo: Dietmar Reker

Harris says he agrees with McCowan that his work with the national bobsled and skeleton teams will make him a better track coach. “In some ways, what I’m doing puts the college on a national stage,” he says. “But more importantly, I think the experience has enhanced my abilities as a coach. And beyond that, it’s part of Vassar’s mission to facilitate self-discovery. I guess I hope what I’m doing will inspire others to go find a place where they can make a difference.”