The Scientist behind the US Ski Team: An Interview with former head U.S. Ski Team Physiologist Sue Robson

FasterSkierFebruary 6, 2008

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a three-part interview. The next two sections will be available over the coming week.

Over the past nine years the US Ski Team has relied on the services of Sue Robson as head sports physiologist. During this time, Sue worked hands-on with coaches and athletes alike, making sure the physical training of America’s speed and tech racers, cross-country and Nordic combiners reflected the aspirations of the USSA — quite simply, in the words of CEO Bill Marolt, “Best in the World.”

The first time I met Sue came when meeting up with former Ski Team coaches Miles Minson and Christer Skog in the Park City training center. The men’s alpine team was in there as well. They were alternating between hammering on spin bikes and taking blood lactate values. At the time the YSI and portable lactate monitors were foreign to me. I didn’t know quite what the alpiners were up to, only that there was a very professional and intimate relationship between hard work and the science of sport.

One recognizable skier in particular was really fired up. After an interval, when the blood value would come in one minute later, he’d yell, “Sue, I’ve got Gatorade legs. I tell you what, I’ve got Gatorade legs.” Apparently when Mr. Miller has Gatorade legs he’s ready to ski fast

Sue, how did your interest in sport science begin?

Oh gosh, that’s quite a long story. It’s a mixture of things. Starting off, I was a scientist in pure physiology, a real lab rat. Also, when in my youth I was into track and field. In college I got back into track quite seriously. I had the fortune then to have someone suggest to me that sport physiology might be for me. When I first started my studies this field didn’t exist. This brought the two things I loved most — the physiology of how the body worked, and sport together in one.

Quite early in my sports science career I had the opportunity to work with some very elite athletes and coaches in several sports including swimming, rowing, and track & field. The more I got to work with this caliber of athletes I became more and more enthusiastic about my job. Sport science became my passion, especially looking into how unique every ‘body’ was, yet, at the same time, could use my knowledge from a range of sports to better understand the training backgrounds of other sports. Also, it’s so exciting. Every year is different. Every athlete is different. I love problems. I love challenges. To use one’s knowledge and try to solve these different riddles, find things out and apply them, that’s the appeal of being a sports scientist.

Sue could you take us back to your British introduction to sport?

Sure. Absolutely! I grew up in the northeast of England, near a town called Stockton-On-Tees. I started first by running with my dog. Then, I went off to college at the University of Liverpool. I did a bit of track running before, just bits of things for school, but this wasn’t very involved. While on a lark at Liverpool University I raced an 800m, always my favorite distance. This went quite well and I got sucked into the cross-country and track clubs there. It ended up being just a complete fluke, but one of the top university athletes who became a good friend — well her coach was a previous top international swim coach, who then later moved into track & field. It turned out that he was prepared to work with someone who was twenty-two and had absolutely zero experience. In two years I made phenomenal gains. I remember sitting on the side of the track, watching people run, being absolutely in awe and saying “How do they do that?” The coach, sitting next to me said, “You could do that, if you wanted to. Do you want to?” [laughs].

From that moment on, I bought in. The first year I wanted it so badly I over-trained. You know, just like the athletes I work with today, sometimes you have to learn the hard way yourself to really know what it takes, and what your body can handle. In two years, I was running close to 2:10. A year after that, I made my career move from pure physiology to sports physiology and a year after that I chose to move to Australia. I have to admit the latter move was more for lifestyle, and freedom to run in the warm more often that anything to do with my career. But, it was from that point that I really began to test the waters in the elite sport science arena. I learnt an awful lot from him and the training environment he managed to create with his athletes through experience and two-way respect.

What are some of the strengths of the British club system?

Britain has such a history in sports such as track & field, and they have very experienced coaches. However, this is a paradox, as historically Britain has had a far- from-phenomenal coach education system. This is in contrast to the Australian set-up where sport education is combined into the system. I think that Britain has a much better more encompassing club base of sports which maximizes athlete participation right across all age groups and backgrounds. However, Australia has a superior coaching system with better coach education enhancing outcomes from a relatively small pool of athletes. I believe drawing on my experience from both countries, that having coach education on a relatively low rung of the priority ladder holds back British athletes relative to their potential. Britain has the history and the experience. Just recently they have started to strongly support both coach and athlete in the area of better sports performance education. When they get this dialed together they have two key ingredients for building something quite special for the future.

What’s this British club system like?

First, it’s quite different than America. It has nothing to do with high schools. It has nothing to do with universities. While at college I ran for Liverpool T&F Club. It’s open slaughter. Anyone can join. You don’t need an affiliation with college or anything like that. It’s there for anyone who wants to run, for any age, for any level of performance.

I see this community-based model being the source of strength for the British sports model. You have numbers of enthusiastic people all around the track or rugby pitch or what have you, almost every night of the week, totally voluntarily, training and trading information. That’s a huge resource of enthusiasm, love for the sport and a breeding ground for excellence.

You came up during the Coe, Ovett, Cram era, right?

Yes. That’s right. But we had this same culture of sport for all, and truly for the fun / love of it for a long time prior to this.

What was this golden age of British mid-distance running like?

There was a whole load of enthusiasm. There was so much success going on during this time. You had the milers but you also had the Sally Gunnel’s (400M hurdle), the Daley Thompson’s (Decathlon), to the Colin Jackson’s (100M hurdles) and Linford Christie’s (100M) coming up then too. So it wasn’t just a distance thing. This culture spread through a lot of different events. This certainly was a progressive, successful and exciting time in British track & field.

What did you take from those fellow Brits being so good?

I’ve never been one to really follow other people. But having people in your country find success makes it feel like it’s possible. You meet them. You run against them. This humanizes the whole thing. It’s like, alright, you know that, I can do that if I really put my whole heart, sole and body into it — they are really no different to me. It just doesn’t seem that far out of your reach when a person from just down the road is taking major medals at the World Championships or Olympics, or setting world records. And these people were. Steve Cram and Kirsty Wade (both middle distance runners of course) lived just twenty kilometers away from where I grew up. While he might have been winning medals, I got to see him as a normal guy. When you’re younger you kind of idolize these people. But, really, when you get right to it, they are pretty normal. Sure, there are always those few people with amazing physiology. But there are also those people who can do something special athletically out of themselves, their environment, and their passion. If you’ve some talent, and you’ve got will and good people around you, it’s amazing what’s possible you know?

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