How the best athletes overcome less-than-ideal physiques for their sports

2014 Sochi Olympics: Imperfect Bodies, Seeking Olympic Perfection

How the best athletes overcome less-than-ideal physiques for their sports


Feb. 6, 2014 7:24 p.m. ET


Yuna Kim is 5-foot-5, tall for a figure skater, but her technique makes up for it, and her height gives her a commanding presence on the ice. European Pressphoto Agency

When hurdling star Lolo Jones first raised her hand for U.S. bobsled duty in 2012, coach Todd Hays looked at her 135-pound frame and thought she should stick with her day job.

“I gave her two chances to make the team, slim and none,” Hays said of that first encounter. To Hays, Jones was strong, but in the wrong way for bobsledding. Her muscles were long and sinewy and lacked the explosiveness required to push a 375-pound sled.

For all of her fame, Jones had a problem that a number of Sochi’s Olympians encountered during their careers: Her body didn’t fit the sport.

Marching into Fisht Olympic Stadium here on the Black Sea Friday night, however, will be a handful of potential medal winners who figured out how to optimize what at first glance might look like un-ideal physiques.

As a hurdler, Jones had developed something Hays couldn’t have noticed at first glance. Because the 100-meter hurdles required Jones to stay low out of the starting blocks as she attacked the first hurdle, she possessed a near-perfect running technique for pushing the sled. That separated her from most sprinters-turned-bobsledders like Herschel Walker. They spring upright and run mostly with both feet off the ground within seconds of the start. Jones runs with her shins at a low angle. Her heels glide just above the ground and the balls of her feet are nearly always in position to dig her front spikes into the ice and transfer her momentum into the sled.

“Lolo doesn’t bounce a lot,” Hays said. “She has this amazing ability to always apply force.”

Still, Jones needed to get bigger and stronger. Using a high-calorie diet that had her eating every two hours and a weight training regimen that emphasized short, explosive bursts of power, Jones transformed her body into something almost unrecognizable from her lanky London physique.

“As a track athlete you’re more like a greyhound dog,” said Jones, who now weighs 160 pounds, during a recent interview. “As a bobsledder you’re more like a Rottweiler or a pit bull. You’re more bulky.”

Countless squats and clean-and-jerks have given Jones thighs like tree trunks, a bulky rump reminiscent of an NFL running back and the shoulders of a lumberjack.

After Jones made the Olympic team, two veteran bobsledders griped that she had won her spot because of her notoriety and the attention she would bring to the little-known sport. Consider these numbers, however: In testing conducted in October 2012, Jones could broad-jump 9.3 feet and both clean- lift and squat 200 pounds. The performance placed her seventh on the U.S. team depth chart. Ten months later she could broad-jump 9.8 feet, clean 220 pounds and squat 240 pounds. Those numbers, combined with her still-lightning speed, placed her second among U.S. women bobsledders. On January 5, Jones and driver Elana Meyers finished second in a World Cup race.

The Tall Twirler

South Korea’s figure-skating gold medalist Yuna Kim, is one of the biggest stars of the Games. At 5-foot-5, she is also one of the biggest skaters.

Sarah Hughes, also 5-5, was initially dismissed by some coaches as being too tall for her sport. Yet she became the 2002 Olympic champion in figure skating.

“What I did, and what I would advise any aspiring Olympian to do is to use whatever it is you have to your advantage,” she said.

The idea that small is better is pervasive throughout figure skating for a reason. Like gymnastics, success in figure skating is largely built around a strength-to-weight ratio, and like smaller gymnasts, smaller figure skaters have an easier time twirling their bodies while airborne. A smaller top completes its revolutions so much faster than a larger one.


Adrian Bejan, an engineering professor at Duke University who studies sports evolution, worked out a formula showing that a skater who is 20% taller than her competitor, will spin 10% more slowly, a significant difference for skaters trying to complete three and four airborne revolutions and land on a blade about 3/16 of an inch thick.

Gracie Gold, the current U.S. champion was still 5-foot tall in middle school. At 13, she grew 4 inches, and had one of her worst years in junior skating. “If you feel tall, it’s not good,” Gold said. “It’s that much more body to throw up into the air in spin. It’s good to feel small and quick.”

Other than Hughes and Kim, most recent female skating champions have been diminutive to say the least. Nancy Kerrigan, who looked so much taller than nearly everyone else, is just 5-foot-4. Michelle Kwan was 5-foot-2, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski who were 5-foot-1 and not surprisingly, natural jumpers.

Yet Kim is widely recognized as an ethereal skater. Aesthetically, she is a vision of grace and athleticism on the ice, and her height—along with her leg strength, help get her there. Judges appreciate the commanding presence bestowed by a big, long-limbed body. There are skaters who are more flexible than Kim, and who spin faster and jump higher, but none complete every element with her combination of beauty and precision.

“She trains the fast twitch, quick firing of her muscles,” said Michael Weiss, the former American national champion and NBC Olympic commentator. Think box-jumps, and running with quick steps through ladders on the floor. “She does a lot of plyometrics and off-ice fitness training so she can spring off the ice and spur the rotation.”

Don’t be fooled by Kim’s delicate shoulders and torso. Her lower-body, especially her thighs and hips are as powerful as a sprinter’s. Lipinski says Kim has also made herself a technically perfect jumper, entering every jump perfectly vertical with her elbows, arms and legs held so tight to her body that “there is no air between anything.”

The Flying Sprite

Using technique to help transform an apparent physical limitation into an advantage is likely to turn Japan’s Sara Takanashi into the first female gold medal winner in ski jumping.

Just 4-foot-11 and barely 90 pounds, Takanashi will be among the smallest Olympians in Sochi. At 17 years old, she is in first place on the World Cups circuit.

In ski jumping being small can actually help. That’s somewhat counterintuitive, however, because a ski jumper generates most of the thrust to fly more than 100 yards by descending the ramp. Bigger jumpers generate more speed. However, once in flight, the bigger jumpers create more drag and descend more quickly. Researchers in Norway have calculated that all other factors being equal, an additional 20 pounds will reduce a jumper’s flight time by .19 seconds.


There are two catches however.

First, there is small and then there is sprite-size. Takanashi’s physique doesn’t appear strong enough to provide the explosion forward at takeoff that her event requires. That need for strength and power, as well as serious guts, is a part of what typically prevents the smallest humans from being ski-jump champions, especially on the smaller “normal hill” that the women compete on.

“The heavier, stronger athlete has a better chance on the normal hill,” said Jeff Hastings, who jumped for the U.S. in 1984.

Second, a tiny jumper like Takanashi still needs near perfect technique to win, and that’s where she truly excels. Almost instantly her small frame assembles into ideal flying position, her body perfectly symmetrical, her skis in the aerodynamic V-shape, her chest low and her chin stretching toward the tips to minimize the drag. Whatever Takanashi’s size forces her to give up in strength and takeoff speed, she makes up for in technique.

The Ageless,
Adaptable Skier

Skier Bode Miller, on the other hand, has spent the past year trying to manipulate his body to improve his technique. Miller is now 36 years old and competing in his fifth Olympics. He has won five Olympic medals in events that involve every Alpine discipline, from slalom to downhill.

In recent years he has followed the typical Alpine skier’s career trajectory. He has gotten better in the speed events than in the more technical slalom and giant slalom competitions. This is partly due to an increasing familiarity with the downhill slopes on the World Cup circuit as well as the tendency of skiers to put on weight. In general, bigger skiers should finish speed events more quickly because the heavier they are the faster they glide down the mountain.

Norwegian Aksel Svindal, the current downhill world champion, is about 220 pounds, only slightly more than Miller was before microfracture surgery on his knee forced him to miss much of the last two seasons. After the surgery, Miller decided to lighten the load on his joints and accentuate what has always been his greatest strength on skis—his Gumby-like ability to pull his body out of the most precarious positions when he is on the verge of crash.

Much to the chagrin of his coaches, Miller dropped 20 pounds, getting down to 195 pounds, mostly by cutting down on the carbohydrates in his diet and through an intense conditioning workout conducted largely on the beach near his home in San Diego.

“He’s almost skinny,” said Mike Kenney, Miller’s uncle and main coach since childhood. “You want to be big. You want to be over-muscled.”

Miller, however, insists that being lighter makes him quicker and more nimble and improves his chances of winning, even if he won’t glide in a straight line as quickly.

“We’re not going in a straight line,” he said. “If we were just speed skiing then definitely being heavier would certainly help but you are changing direction the whole way down, and in Sochi fitness is going to be a huge component.” He added, “My biggest strength has been my athleticism and my ability to adapt and make recoveries and if I want to come back and race at the top, top level that I am capable of I think I have to capitalize on my biggest strengths.”

Thursday, Miller posted the fastest training time of any skier in the downhill.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: