Four women, Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo, did something no American women had done in 20 years – win a medal in track cycling at the Olympics.

Their incredible story of training and triumph are told impactfully in the documentary, Personal Gold. You can find a summary of their story at this link here. This post is about the amazing transformation sports performance sciences is undergoing, and how biometric data is making an impact on the training and performance of athletes today.

With incredibly little resources available to them, Reed called her former USA Cycling teammate, Sky Christopherson, who was well on the way of making a marked transition from athlete to entrepreneur. Christopherson had become convinced that digital medicine would become a vital tool for high performance athletes. Understanding how to uncover insight from big data is hugely important in marketing, financial services, economics, and is now a big part of health and human performance sciences.

Due to the relatively low support of the women’s cycling track team by USA Cycling, Christopherson recruited volunteers to help him gather individualized biological and genetic data on each of the four cyclists, data that was being generated by sensors attached to the athletes bodies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and then to analyze it.

According to Christopherson, who was also the producer of the documentary, Personal Gold, the amount of information available to them was overwhelming, not only for Sky and his team, but for his computers, which in the early days crashed in trying to cope with the number crunching.

But once Christopherson recruited a big data analysis firm to volunteer their time and expertise, they began to take note of insight they could use. And all the data told them that each cyclist had unique characteristics and individual needs, and thus training them all the same way could at times be detrimental to the individual’s performance and growth. Here are a few examples pointed out by Christopherson at a recent speaking engagement in Tokyo, sponsored by the US Embassy:

  • In Hammer’s case, blood tests showed she had Vitamin D deficiencies, made worse by training indoors most of the time. Having normal levels of Vitamin D is key to getting the most out of one’s training, so Hammer was working harder than she needed to due to her deficiency.
  • Bausch, whose experience was greater as a distance cyclist and was struggling at sprinting speeds, was found to have what is known as the “sprinter’s gene”, which according to this Wired article, boosted her confidence.
  • Sensors noted that Reed was not getting enough deep sleep. More and more research is revealing the importance of deep sleep. In the case of athletes, the longer and deeper you sleep, the more HGH (human growth hormones) like cortisol or testosterone, is released naturally into their systems. These hormones are essential to faster recovery, and thus the ability to train longer at peak performance.

The data can also tell an athlete when an athlete can train hard, when the body is ready for it, or when to rest. This is key because as Christopherson advised, this knowledge can prevent injuries from occurring.

Trailer screenshot

I asked Christopherson if this was a case of “Moneyball“, where the women’s team had access to insight that other teams didn’t have, using that information arbitrage to their advantage unbeknownst to the heavily-resourced cycling giants.

“We were grassroots and so we were very nimble and could innovate and change very quickly,” Christopherson told me. Being a small, low-budget operation forced them to be innovative, using whatever resources were available to them in the world. In fact, he felt that the well-financed teams, whose funds came from sponsors, often limited their flexibility. While teams are obligated to using the products of sponsors, the American team had no such limitations, and Christopher told the audience that they had the flexibility to change sensors and equipment as they saw fit.

The proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention”, was never truer.

Lauren Tamayo, Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed

“It was a miracle,” he said.

Not only had the US not won a medal in team pursuit cycling in 20 years, USA Cycling hadn’t even bothered to organize a pursuit cycling team since 1996. So in 2012, when four American women decided to make a go of it, training desperately for the London Olympics, the collective experience in pursuit cycling in America was minimal, the team’s budget was meager, and the gap between them and the very best in the world was huge.

And yet, as 1996 Olympian, Sky Christopherson told a transfixed audience at a speaking event sponsored by the US Embassy in Tokyo in early December, a miracle indeed happened. Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo came seemingly out of nowhere to win silver in the women’s team pursuit in London.

Hammer was already a four-time Cycling World Champion in individual pursuit, but was determined to be an Olympic champion. Bausch was a model recovering from anorexia who hadn’t started her cycling career until the age of 26. Reed was asked to come out of retirement to join the team to take a crack at the 2012 London Games.

This is the starting point for the mesmerizing documentary, Personal Gold, produced by Christopherson, who had transitioned from Olympic cyclist to entrepreneur. Not only has he become an authority on the relationship between biometrics and genomics and high performance, he also established a consultancy called Optimized Athlete.

Sky Christopherson at The American Center Japan in Tokyo

I had the pleasure of watching this documentary at this event, after which Christopherson made himself available for Q&A. His documentary told the story of a women’s cycling team that clearly lacked support in 2012. While Great Britain and Australia’s cycling organizations put tens of millions of dollars into their road and track cycling teams, USA Cycling put all their dollars in road racing, thanks to the success of Lance Armstrong and his colleagues.

Personal Gold tells the story of how the team identified Mallorca, Spain as a good place to train for its low cost and proximity to London. Other national teams would provide a whole cadre of trainers and coaches. When the American team arrived in Mallorca three months prior to the start of the London Olympics, they were shocked to learn that the only support USA Cycling would provide is a single coach.

As is shown in the documentary, the athletes’ husbands played an integral part in Team USA, keeping the bicycles in tip-top shape, shouting out times and providing water during training, cooking meals, giving massages, and being massively important keepers of morale. In addition to the cyclists’ husbands, Christopherson created a virtual team of volunteer advisors – experts on biology, genetics, sleep, a data analytics consultancy, as well as a former Navy Seal who provided guidance on teamwork.

During the course of the training camp, amazing progress was made in understanding the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the cyclists, and what they needed to do as a team to improve. When the team began its training in Spain, they knew they had to get to world-class speeds of about 3 minutes and 16 seconds in the 3,000 meter race. But try as they could, they could not even break 3 minutes and 20 seconds. Unfortunately, by the time they broke camp, they still had not improved their times.

But Christopherson provided insight into how the body works after training hard. Like the idea of how an “a-ha” moment hits unexpectedly, after periods of great focus and concentration, the body is also readying itself for it’s own “a-ha” moment. “When we arrived in London, we began to taper (our training routine). We mostly rested. And that’s when the biggest potential comes. Of course, it’s unclear how high you will go. But athletes can get into a flow. Something happens, from their hearts, and they transcend.”

As they readied themselves for the qualification round in the velodrome in London, the team from the US tried to stay calm in a velodrome located in a country that is cycling mad. Unfortunately they were going up in the first round against Team GB, and the noise and the support for the Brits was likely intimidating.

The riders selected for this round, Bausch, Hammer and Reed, looked sloppy during the qualification race, their formation far from tight. As it turns out, they achieved their fastest time ever at 3 minutes and 19.4 seconds. But it was disappointing as it was still