Like anyone anticipating a long-haul flight from Australia to the United Kingdom, he’s preparing for a few days of fuzzy-headedness and screwy sleep patterns. Unlike most of us, he isn’t only concerned on his own behalf.
As sports science and medicine coordinator for the Australian Paralympic swim team, Burkett is focused on the elite athletes in his charge.
“When we first leave Australia, our priority will be on how athletes are recovering from the travel,” he says.
Once the team arrives at its training camp in Cardiff this week, Burkett and his colleagues will help coaches monitor the athletes’ preparation: taking heart rates, assessing muscle lactate levels and capturing swimming performance on video for analysis.
Burkett has worked with the Paralympic team for over a decade. Experience tells him the athletes will be jittery, but that the hard facts provided by careful monitoring can help settle nerves.
“We’ll be able to tell them, ‘You’re ready to race’,” he says.
A sporting career
It’s a far cry from when Burkett started swimming at the elite level in the 80s. Back then hardly any athletes worked with scientists.
“You never really had a sports scientist,” says the low-key Queenslander, who is now a professor in biomechanics at the University of the Sunshine Coast. “There was a coach and that was it.”
Burkett is now part of a growing army of sports scientists credited with helping Australia punch above its weight on the international sporting stage.
“From our experience, the ideal situation is that sport science knowledge, when used correctly, can account for up to 90 per cent of the performance outcome,” he says. “Why? Because the sports science provides objective information that can guide the decision of what the coach should do.”
Burkett always loved sport. Growing up in Tannum Sands, a small town on Queensland’s central coast, he was captain of his local rugby league team, and swam to improve his asthma.
But his ambition to play league for Australia came to a violent end in late 1985 when he was hit-and-run while riding a motorcycle. His right leg was smashed in thirteen places and had to be amputated above the knee.
After the accident he focused on swimming. At his first Paralympics in Seoul in 1988, he won a silver medal in the Men’s 4×50 m Freestyle Relay A1-A8 event. Four years later in Barcelona he won bronze in the Men’s 50 m Freestyle S9 event. Then he captained the Australian Paralympic team at the 1996 Atlanta Games, winning gold in the Men’s 50 m Freestyle S9 event, and silver in the Men’s 4×100 m Freestyle S7-10 event. And in 2000, he won silver in the Mens 4×100 Freestyle 34 pts event at Sydney.
Engineering in the body
Burkett became interested in sports science in the early 90s when he was looking for ways to combine work and his love of sport. He already had degrees in engineering, so studying biomechanics was an ideal fit.
“It’s just engineering in the body,” he explains.
In 1993 he began a PhD while continuing to compete as a swimmer at the top level — training six hours a day and working on his doctorate for another four. For his PhD he looked at ways to optimise the running prosthesis for Paralympic runners.
“What I wanted to do was not design a new expensive prosthesis that may have been out of reach for many athletes, but to understand how to put together existing parts to work better,” he says
Since retiring after the 2000 Sydney Paralympics — where he carried the Australian flag — Burkett has continued working in the area of prosthetics and now oversees several post-doctoral researchers, PhD students and honours students.
“I’ve done a lot of work in this area, and while advances in prosthetics are coming along in leaps and bounds, the problem is still how to control them and that’s where it falls apart,” he says.
Even the most remarkable athletes, such as South Africa’s runner Oscar Pistorious — who will compete at both the Olympics and the Paralympics on two prosthetic legs — are hampered by the fact that their prosthetics are simply attached to their bodies externally, and are not under the control of their nervous system.
Beyond prosthetics, Burkett is also developing sensors that can measure how athletes move as they compete and train. These ‘inertial sensors’ pack accelerometers and magnetometers into a container half the size of a matchbox.
Taped onto athletes’ backs, arms or heads, they will provide crucial data on body positions as they swim, run or otherwise compete. “That’s on target for use in Rio [at the next Olympic and Paralympic Games],” Burkett says.
In the meantime, the London Paralympic games are looming. “We’ll be in the top five teams,” he says. “It’s always tough at this level, but we’ll be up there.”
Professor Brendan Burkett OAM is the associate dean of the Centre for Healthy Activities, Sport and Exercise at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and the sports science and medicine coordinator for the 2012 Australian Paralympic swim team.
First published by ABC Science online. http:ww/abc.net.au/science