Student Skates Toward Success Via Sports Training Program By Emil Venere What began as a class project for undergraduate Peter Zapalo has blossomed into a computer software program that is attracting interest from competitive figure skaters. Suddenly, the 20-year-old biology major finds that his system is in demand: he's being flown to Florida and Colorado to demonstrate how it works to coaches and skaters. The program could be used to reduce injuries by helping athletes pinpoint the cause of injury. But it could also fit an array of clinical and research applications, said the junior, who designed the program as a sophomore in assistant professor Harry Goldberg's Applications of Interactive Multimedia course. Zapalo uses a standard camcorder and off-the-shelf multimedia computer hardware to tape and analyze a skater's performance. First he dons a pair of skates and gets on the ice to shoot video of the skater in action. Then he integrates the video with his software program, which calculates data such as the height of the skater's jump, speed and rate of rotation. Video from two skaters can be played side-by-side, or video from the same skater taken at different training sessions can be compared, injecting a scientific approach to analyzing performance. His method is far less expensive and easier to use than systems presently used for sports medicine. Those systems cost in the $25,000 range, are bulky and require much more expertise to operate. They use a combination of three stationary cameras and force the skater to perform jumps in a fixed space between the cameras, whereas Zapalo's strategy is to move with the skater. "A person with a handicam can move anywhere on the ice," Zapalo said. "So the skater can perform the jump wherever they feel most comfortable." The athlete is recorded on a VHS tape, making it easy for coaches and skaters to review performance and training in progress. They simply slip the tape into their VCR. After Zapalo developed his program, he started working with amateur skater Derrick Delmore, a 15-year-old from Fort Washington, Md. Soon the skater's coach, Shirley Hughes, had Zapalo working with all of her students, and invited him to hold a clinic this summer. Word quickly spread to other coaches in the Professional Skaters Guild of America. Last month the Tampa Bay Skating Academy flew him to Florida, where he worked with aspiring Olympic skaters. "It was just an overwhelming response," he said. "They just loved it." The guild's executive board invited him to the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, where he will demonstrate his system next month. Zapalo also has been asked to work with figure skaters in Denver; their coach heard about his computerized training aid while Zapalo worked with skaters in Tampa. With Zapalo's program, the athlete's movements can be broken into 30 frames per second, and each digital frame can be frozen with clarity, without the distorting lines that appear when frames are frozen with a standard VCR. "One of the nicer things is that we can play backward, we can stop each individual frame, which would be nearly impossible with a regular VCR," said Zapalo, who has been working with computers since he was 6. "My parents always thought it was important for us to be competitive academically," he said, noting that even when his father was unemployed for a short time, his parents still managed to buy their son a computer. He hopes to one day practice sports medicine. "My dream is to be an Olympic Training Center doctor," Zapalo said. "I love working with athletes, and I hate to see kids who are chronically injured." Dr. Goldberg, a neurobiologist at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute and director of the Center for Digital Media Research and Development, said the purpose of his course is not to foster software development but to teach students how to solve problems while working in a research environment. "In Peter's case, skating was simply a model for this broader aim," he said. The program could easily be applied to a wide range of sports and therapy settings. For example, it could be used to maximize a swimmer's performance or to help a runner prevent a repeat of previous injuries. Possible non-sports medical applications include speech therapy and other therapies for disabled people. Zapalo's newfound success has demonstrated the value of Dr. Goldberg's course objective, teaching students to use multimedia computers to solve problems. But success also has reminded him of his long-term goals. In the immediate future, he will have to concentrate less on helping figure skaters and more on his studies. "My goal is not to become a software developer; my goal is to become a doctor," said the 1992 graduate of Oxon Hill Science and Technology Center, a magnet school in Prince George's County. He plans to graduate in the spring of 1996.
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