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America’s Cup winner Simon van Velthooven on how New Zealand athletes use tech to push their human capabilities

Over the course of his decorated sporting career, Simon van Velthooven says using the right technology has given him an advantage over his competitors – even if it just has a placebo effect on his mentality.

“When you know you’ve got good gear underneath you, you feel like you’ve got a better chance than what you had before to get the result you desire or deserve,” he says. “When you believe in the kit you’ve got, you go that extra one percent to win a race. If you don’t believe in it and go in with a negative attitude, that is the biggest hurdle.”

He’d know a thing or two about going that extra one percent. Van Velthooven claimed New Zealand’s first Cycling Track Sprint Olympic Medal in London in 2012, and was then brought in to trial, develop and train the Emirates Team New Zealand’s sailors for the America’s Cup when cyclor bikes were installed in the boat – a decision that contributed to the New Zealand team’s triumphant win last year.

Traditionally, sailing catamarans had used sails and hydrofoils to lift the 1.5 tonne boats above the water (like that of a plane taking off). In order to produce the hydraulic power to control the boat’s lift, speed and direction, crews aboard the ships usually use arm-powered grinding stations.

But last year, Emirates Team New Zealand decided to change it up and put four cycling pedestals in instead of grinding machines, saying in a press release, “When we sat down to think about the overall design of this boat three years ago, the benefits of cycling opposed to regular grinding were obvious, but certainly not without issues and difficulty with functionality, and this is what we have been working incredibly hard on overcoming for the past three years.”

Given van Velthooven’s experience in cycling (he was nicknamed ‘Rhino’ for his abilities on the cycling track) the powerhouse was brought on board to get the team’s fitness and abilities with the technology up to speed for the Cup.

The decision was initially met with skepticism, but competitor boat Oracle saw the value in this technology, eventually adding its own cycling position to their helm.

Van Velthooven says the decision to switch to this technology helped cement a win for the team due to the flow-on effect installing the cycling pedestals had.

“We trained harder and raced harder and worked harder,” he says. “The whole team worked harder because we knew we smarter, had a faster boat and had more horsepower. We knew we had a Ferrari under us, we were buoyant off that. It’s just a snowball effect when you have that positive energy brewing because you have better tools than your competitors. There’s a huge mental gain having that better technology.”

Van Velthooven says another bonus of introducing this tech was the team had zero sports-induced injuries.

“The other teams had injuries all the way through, but over six weeks of racing, we hardly changed the team and barely anyone got injured. The technology or design choice to go the bikes was for the added power but for me, one of the main advantages was the fact we had no injuries.”

Cycling pedestals are off the cards for the next America’s Cup race, so van Velthooven says the team is starting the boat for the next race off on a clean slate, and with that comes the need to expand his skillsets.

“They’re not using pedestals, so I’m working on upper body and learning everything I can regarding arm grinding and how other systems works – and trying to make it better, train smarter and train harder.”

In terms of where the biggest opportunities lie for sport and tech, van Velthooven says funding is the biggest hurdle for New Zealand athletes and teams – but his advice to others is not to let that get in the way of a great idea.

“Everyone’s got great ideas, but to be able to act on it financially is the hurdle that stops it. If you do have a great idea, make sure you see it right to the end. Every other team looked at cycling system for the America’s Cup and didn’t see the value in it as much as they did. When you want to get something to work, you make it work,” van Velthooven says.

The tale of Emirates Team New Zealand’s victory and the technology that contributed to the win is what van Velthooven, a keynote speaker, will be talking about at the Techweek annual Sports Performance Innovation Forum on Wednesday 23 May, which has been organised by Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED).

Indira Negi, the director of business development in Intel’s Olympic Programme Office, is another speaker at the event alongside Nicolas James, a world-leading researcher in the area of neural networks, artificial intelligence and data mining techniques for sports performance.

The forum will also be showcasing the latest sports performance businesses and research from around Aotearoa.

Watch the highlights from last year’s event below, or book tickets to the Sports Innovation Forum here.

Elly is Idealog's editor and resident dog enthusiast. She enjoys travelling, tea, good books, and writing about exciting ideas and cool entrepreneurs.

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