Sanford Sports Science Institute intern Tony Smoragiewicz watched the COVID-19 pandemic unfold on a world scale with the potential to continually impact his opportunities to fulfill a longtime dream.
In addition to working with SSSI, Smoragiewicz, a University of Michigan graduate with a degree in aerospace engineering, is a professional triathlete who aspired to make the U.S. Olympic team.
The athletes preparing to make that team were getting ready for a sports happening that was to be played out on a world stage in Tokyo beginning in August of 2020. That changed with the announcement the Olympics were being postponed by a year. When the official Team USA Olympic representatives were announced earlier this summer, Smoragiewicz was ranked No. 6 in the nation. The U.S. qualified two men, Morgan Pearson and Kevin McDowell, for the Tokyo Olympics.
“For a while now I’ve been thinking postponement was the only viable option for the Olympics,” Smoragiewicz said from his training headquarters in Arizona more than a year ago. “I’m glad they’re postponed and not canceled but I couldn’t imagine any scenario where they could have held them safely this summer. It’s good that they had the health of the world in mind.”
Smoragiewicz and other triathletes attempting to qualify had to re-set their clocks in terms of training and targeting races.
“For two weeks we’ve all been pretty certain they would be postponed,” he said. “It was good that they finally announced it. It makes it safer for the athletes because some have been training in conditions where they probably shouldn’t have been training, or just stuck inside. We get some mental peace.”
Search for improvement
While the sports world is still turned upside-down to an extent, Smoragiewicz and his colleagues benefited from his affiliation with Sanford. In terms of training, who would be better at delving into the science of triathlons than a smart guy who competes in triathlons for a living?
Specifically during his time with SSSI, one of Smoragiewicz’s projects has focused on when a triathlete gets off his bicycle and begins running. Is there a better way to make that transition? Obviously, it’s a crucial part of the event and one that Smoragiewicz has a personal stake in.
“It’s weird how your legs feel when you get off a bike,” Smoragiewicz said. “You’re using them in circles, and then you have to start making strides. It’s like you’re on a treadmill all of a sudden. The biomechanics and physiology of that can be measured in a lab.”
Hence, worthy of analysis.
“Part of what he’s doing for us is analyzing his own data,” said Lisa MacFadden, Ph.D., a biomechanical engineer who leads the Sanford Sports Science Institute in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “He’s trying to glean insight from this data. He’s looking for areas where there is room for improvement.”
Efforts could help others
It’s not just about Smoragiewicz. Potentially, the information gained via his work could help all triathletes. The collaboration with people like MacFadden has the potential to be particularly productive given Smoragiewicz’s athletic and academic background.
“In Tony, you have someone who is an engineer and also an elite triathlete,” MacFadden said. “He’s able to take the data from a project and apply both his professional knowledge and training and his experience of being that level of athlete. The work that he’s doing and the results he finds will not just benefit him. It will also be more impactful work that we can then apply to other triathletes because it’s coming from someone who has his experience.”
Pursuit of endurance competitions has always been a passion for Smoragiewicz. A former standout distance runner at Rapid City (South Dakota) Central who went on to earn All-America honors at Michigan, he was already an accomplished triathlete as a teenager.
The assumption is that those who are at Smoragiewicz’s level in this sport have overcome the conventional motivational hurdles associated with getting into shape. It’s not about training harder for world-class triathletes because everyone trains hard. More likely it is about training smarter.
It is why he has benefited from his time at SSSI, where he has participated in in-depth physiological training.
That includes sweat-testing, which can provide vital information for competing in the heat.
“It looks at your sweat rate to find out how much food you’re actually losing,” Smoragiewicz said. “It looks at the content of your sweat and helps you find out what minerals you’re losing and how your body responds to a heat-stressor as well.”
Every bit counts
“Being the best in the world is something that can consume your entire life,” Smoragiewicz said. “What is going to make you the best in the triathlon is not just about training harder on the bike or running more. It’s about energy and sleep and nutrition — things like making sure you take naps and focusing on injury prevention so that you can stay on top of your training. A little change in technique or in training has the potential to give you a few seconds advantage on race day.”
Boredom can be an issue, Smoragiewicz admitted. But nothing an engineer can’t handle.
“There are definitely days when it’s a struggle to get out the door,” he said. “I try to think about making myself better, whether that next triathlon is 200 days away or 50 days away. A little coaching can make a workout a lot more manageable and enjoyable. It’s not like you analyze every step you take, but there are days when you find that if you concentrate on a few little things, it’s easier to stay focused than if you’re always thinking about the next big thing.”
Triathletes need their sleep
A day in the life of a professional triathlete — at least this particular triathlete — begins at 7:30 a.m.
He’ll eat a breakfast that includes cereal or oatmeal and fruit. Nothing real exotic. His first workout is at 9 a.m. It’s usually an hour of swimming followed by a break followed by lifting weights for an hour.
Then comes the nap, followed by a hard bike workout or a run. Oftentimes, he’ll put together another workout in the evening.
His diet is a never-ending science-based search for carbohydrates.
“Americans tend to think you have to eat a lot of protein, but in other parts of the world, that’s not always the case,” he said. “Carbohydrates give you easily accessible energy — and that’s what we need.”
Training the brain
Smoragiewicz’s work with the Sanford Sports Science Institute qualifies as a welcome change of pace during the training grind. It can be lonely when you’re near the top of this sport. A project of some kind can provide some company.
“Working with the Sanford Sports Science Institute has allowed me to use my brain a little bit,” Smoragiewicz said. “It’s good to have some distractions. I think most of us learn it’s good to have something outside your sport. Especially when injuries come up. Then what are you going to do with your life? You need something else to fall back on.”
And in the meantime? He’s making adjustments. Like everyone else.
“The worst thing about it is that you don’t know when it’s going to end,” he said in 2020. “It’s a situation you have to accept right now. No matter who it is, whether you’re an athlete or have a normal 9-to-5 job, everyone has been on edge the last few weeks. For athletes at least, now we know we don’t have to put ourselves in a bad situation trying to qualify for the Olympics.”
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