Road To The Olympic Games

Canadian curlers receiving covert help

Biomechanical engineer, Tom Jenkyn, may provide Canadian curlers with whatever tips, tools and biomechanically engineered gadgets they need to help them secure a pair of gold medals in Vancouver next month.
Canadian skips Cheryl Bernard, left, and Kevin Martin could be provided with biomechanically engineered gadgets to help them secure gold medals in Vancouver. ((Michael Burns/Associated Press))

There are some things Tom Jenkyn cannot talk about. Not now. Not for several months. He has been sworn to secrecy. There is too much at stake. His country is counting on him.

Jenkyn is not a spy. But the unassuming biomechanical engineer at the University of Western Ontario is involved in Top Secret, a government-funded, covert operation with Winter Olympic implications.

His mission? To provide Canadian curlers with whatever tips, tools and biomechanically engineered gadgets they need to help them secure a pair of gold medals in Vancouver next month.

"Let me put it this way," Jenkyn says from his office in London, Ont. "I am a mechanical engineer by training, so let's just say the basic science phase of the study is over. We have done the research, and the engineering phase is well under way, and there is not a lot I can tell you about that.

"We have got a few tricks up our sleeves. That was the whole idea of the Top Secret program: to develop stuff we could either give to the athletes either as equipment or knowledge. We have changed some things."

Jenkyn knew nothing of the curling world right up until a "couple guys" from the Canadian Curling Association approached him in 2007. They were not wearing trench coats, or driving an unmarked vehicle, although they did have a rather sensitive subject to discuss with the assistant professor.

Own the Podium, the ambitious, $110-million program jointly funded by the government and corporate Canada was up and running.

A portion of the funds was being channelled into multiple research projects: to help speed skaters corner better, to get skiers to ski straighter lines, to help aerialists relax between daredevil jumps. It was top-secret stuff. The program was even named Top Secret. Such was the cloak-and-dagger enterprise an unassuming biomechanical engineer was being asked to join.

"You know what, I knew absolutely nothing about curling beforehand," Jenkyn says with a laugh. "My only motivation was that my in-laws come from Manitoba, and if this was a way I was going to get on my father-in-law's good side, then I was going to take it.

Jenkyn's usual line of work involved helping people with arthritis and osteoarthritis get around with greater ease. A gifted researcher, his list of published papers was long, with tongue twisting titles such as: "Toe-out gait in patients with knee osteoarthritis partially transforms external knee adduction moment into flexion moment during early stance phase of gait: a tri-planar kinetic mechanism."

There was nothing in his personal bibliography about curling.

And so began a brainstorming session, which ultimately led Jenkyn to a curling rink surrounded by infrared cameras at the National Training Centre in Edmonton. His undertaking in the service of Canada's Olympic glory involved studying the science of the sweep.

"On the one side, what we were looking at was the biomechanics of the sweeper," Jenkyn says. "On the other side, what we were looking at was what the actual sweeping was doing to the ice."

Some of the things Jenkyn discovered simply reinforced existing wisdom among elite curlers. For instance, body positioning. The most effective sweepers have their weight right on top of the broom. (Imagine removing the broom and the sweeper would fall flat on the ice).

"The coaches already kind of knew that," Jenkyn says.

They did not know everything. Two competing schools of thought exist concerning the positioning of the broom head in relation to the rock when sweeping.

Old school method

The old school method is to position the broom at a 45-degree angle to the stone. The new school, which has emerged in recent years and is being preached by curling coaches far and wide, involves having the broom perpendicular to the rock face — and sweeping back and forth.

"We discovered that the new school method wasn't very effective," Jenkyn says.

The old school technique heats the ice in a uniform manner, where the new school method produced a mash of hot and cold patches, negatively impacting the rock's flight path.

"With the old school technique, the rock sees the same temperature the whole way down the ice, which we found made the shots not as long, but much more consistent," Jenkyn says.

"The name of the game is consistency. A skip needs to know where that rock is going."

Kevin Martin and the Canadian rink are old school sweepers. There were other tricks and scientific lessons learned — and curling gadgets presumably being engineered — soon to be at the curlers' disposal. Jenkyn cannot talk about what the little surprises might be in Vancouver. Not to the media. Not even to the man he was hoping to impress.

"I was sitting in a room with my in-laws and all their friends watching last year's Brier, and they were just pounding me with questions: 'What about this? And what about that?' But honestly, I am telling you what I am allowed to tell you. And with them, I was saying, I can't say anything. I can neither confirm nor deny that we have discovered this or that. I am on the hot seat here," Jenkyn says.

"We did a gold and a bronze in Turin, and we better do better than that in Vancouver, or I am going to have to go in to hiding."