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Meet Winter Olympic skeleton champion Lizzy Yarnold and the sled designers who helped her win gold

18 February 2014

Great Britain skeleton racer Lizzy Yarnold sped to glory in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on Friday, on a state-of-the-art BlackRoc sled.

Education UK brings you an exclusive interview with Caleb Sawade, an Australian PhD student at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Engineering and Environment, who was part of the team that built it.

Caleb tells us how he’s been involved in building the 29kg steel-framed sled and other projects, what the future holds – and how studying in the UK means applying innovation to sport.

Tell us about the origins of the BlackRoc sled, and how the University of Southampton came to be involved?

'The University has had a long history of involvement with performance sport, initially through Formula 1, IndyCar, the America’s Cup and yacht design for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. We started working with UK Sport [the government organisation which invests in sport in the UK] from 2005, initially with Cycling and then from 2006 with British Skeleton. Two postgraduate students, Rachel Blackburn and James Roche, developed the BlackRoc sleds (hence the name) as part of their doctoral programme in partnership with a team assembled by UK Sport.'

What other areas of sport does the University of Southampton get involved with, and which UK companies do you partner with?

'We’ve worked across many sports, primarily focussed through our partnership with UK Sport. One of our main areas of specialism is fluid dynamics and so often we’ve been looking at where gains can be found, working with athletes and coaches, both with equipment and technique.

'For instance, in swimming we developed a number of engineering systems to measure swimming performance that can be used as part of training. More recently we’ve been helping sports like cricket and hockey with analysis of individual performance. We’ve mostly worked with small and medium enterprises as well as large partners to the UK Sport programmes such as Speedo, BAE Systems and McLaren Advanced Technologies.'

You have some impressive facilities at Southampton, including a wind tunnel that has been used in training by speed skiers and bobsleigh teams, as well as in research. What gains can be achieved from using technology like this?

'The gains depend on the sport and most crucially on the athlete. Often all we are doing in the wind tunnel is providing a controlled environment in which the athlete can explore how their technique can be refined. Academically, we find many of the fluid dynamics we can observe of great interest but all the athlete wants to know is, "How can I do my best?"'

Southampton is just one of many centres of excellence for engineering in the UK.  Why should aspiring students from across the world chose Britain as a launch pad for a career in advanced engineering?

'As an Australian, it was the open and creative environment that the UK engineering programmes champion that were a particular bonus. It is exciting to be actually studying and applying the latest techniques to real-world problems and to know the work will have an impact on others rather than just the limited readership of academic journals.'

Finally, where do you see applied technology taking sport in the future, and what role will centres like the University of Southampton have to play in this?

'Technology should always support athletes rather than dominate how athletes perform. It is the athlete who works hard and builds their dreams. Technology will help understand system performance, ensure fair play and, like the space programme, it can spin out ideas into other sectors. It’s the excitement we’ve seen which will inspire the next generation of engineers, which is why Southampton is keen to engage. Engineering developments underpin modern society and attracting the best students to work in its disciplines is an essential component of a University’s mission.'

'As an Australian, it was the open
and creative environment that the UK
engineering programmes champion
that were a particular bonus.'

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