Michelle Koton is a Bondi-based Pilates instructor and fitness instructor who has worked for 16 years to prevent pain, build strength, assist balance and increase vitality in her clients. We’re lucky enough to be featuring her on the blog today – reflecting on Olympic athletes, their body types and how our sportspeople are evolving to be quicker, faster and stronger…
Like many people, I’ve spent a bit of time these last few weeks watching the world’s finest athletes compete in Rio. It’s been incredible to watch the drama, the highs, the lows, the disappointments, the raw athleticism, the focus and the come-from-nowhere wins. All those years of training for perfection brought together at a single moment for a burst of power, or a graceful leap or a precision shot. When you get to the very pointy-end of athletic perfection, when results hang on millimetres and milliseconds, it seems to me that the athlete that best handles what’s going on between their ears is the one that steps up and owns the critical moment. Olympic success relies on balanced body and mind.
These Games, perhaps more than any other, I’ve found myself really looking at the athletes’ body shapes and the way they move. Perhaps I’m showing my age, but to me it doesn’t seem that long ago that female gymnasts, for example, were long and lean and lithe. Compare them to the muscular power-packs like Simone Biles who tumble and soar these days in ways that seem to defy the laws of physics. I understand that particular sports dictate body-shape and the way muscles are developed to deliver the requisite output, but do those bodies look healthy to you? What shape will they take in the years after competition? What will their movement be like as they age? I do hope there’s some Pilates in their futures.
Just this week I stumbled on a project by Australian graphic designer Wendy Fox to document the body shapes of every gold medal winning female at the Olympics. It is utterly wonderful. Not only because it plays a part in shattering the myth of the ‘normal’ female body, but also as a way to illustrate what kind of body types suit particular sports. As a student of body shapes, structure and movement, it’s a fascinating record.
I think back to the late 1980s when male sprinters suddenly shape-shifted from tall and sinewy, to massively strong, huge arms and chests – all about raw power. There was nothing efficient about it. We know now that plenty weren’t ‘clean’ but that basic shape still seems to propel sprinters across the earth faster than any other. That is, of course, unless you’re Usain Bolt. When I watch him run I see utter balance and efficiency of movement. He hardly looks like he is breaking a sweat. Unlike his competitors who seem to exert immense amounts of effort.
Australian sprinter Matt Shirvington competed in the Sydney Olympics and recently described Bolt thus: “When he is fully launched, each one of his strides is about 3.0 metres. And then, the stunning thing. Near the end, instead of that stride shortening, which is usual with sprinters, it lengthens to 3.1 metres.” Efficiency in motion right there.
Pulling themselves through thick liquid surroundings, swimmers, too, have to be naturally balanced and efficient. And, again, we see different body shapes suited to different strokes and distances. Watching the world’s best swimmers skewer through the water faster than seems physically possible with those long, reaching strokes is one of sport’s great sights.
Olympic cycling, weightlifting, rowing, diving, fencing, you name it – just like in the natural world – efficiency means survival and success. Just look at the astonishing diversity of animal and plant shapes that a few billion years of evolution have served up. Unlike in the natural world however, we are physically re-shaping ourselves dramatically in single lifetimes in the pursuit of greatness. What is that doing to those bodies?
Pilates is a fusion of the mind and body. Like Usain Bolt, it is only the complete synergy of movement intention and muscular proportion, balanced with perfect breath flow that creates that perfect effortless motion. And, yes, it comes from the inside out. Mind and body in total unison.
So where to next for the planet’s supreme athletes on their quest for ever finer margins and advantages? Will we see more big shifts in the way athletes are built for particular sports? Or are Usain Bolt and Simone Biles simply the shapes of things to come?
I’d love to know what you think.
To find out more, check out mpowerpilates.com.au.
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