Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 19, 1994

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
    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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