By Jon Roe
In a sport where you’re racing five other people around a hockey rink at speeds in excess of 40 kilometres per hour, you better hope that if you fall, whatever is stopping you is soft and forgiving.
This hasn’t always been the case in short track speed skating, but a University of Calgary researcher is helping develop improved pads for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“With foam pads, the basic line is to slow [skaters] down more gradually,” said U of C mechanical and manufacturing engineering senior instructor Dr. Clifton Johnston.
Short track speed skating started as a demonstration event at the 1988 games in Calgary, before becoming a full Olympic event in 1992. The skaters would use hockey rinks with only the boards to absorb crashes. Pads gradually were introduced into the sport and the newest systems are used without hockey boards.
Johnston and Mount Royal College engineering instructor Dr. Sean Maw designed pads with multiple types of foam in metre-thick vinyl cases.
“The pads we’ve designed for Vancouver are very deliberately designed for the foam [to be] very functional in the pad,” said Johnston. “It’s soft here; it’s harder here to absorb more energy. They’re some of the first pads in the world that really have been designed.”
U of C third-year kinesiology student Jessica Gregg trains at the Olympic Oval in short track speed skating. She found that pads significantly reduce the amount of injuries.
Gregg skated in World Cup events at Salt Lake City, Utah in back-to-back seasons. Johnston set up a pad system before this season’s event.
“Last year there was a broken leg and two concussions and this year I don’t think there were any injuries,” said Gregg.
Johnston is in the process of setting up the pads that will be used in Vancouver. They have to work around the different obstacles in the venue and the need for flexibility.
“Any pad system is not going to stop someone from getting hurt,” Johnston said. “If they go in the wrong position or hit it head first or hit it feet first [they’re going to get hurt].”