In Olympic competition, hundredths of seconds and tenths of inches decide the difference between glory and going home an also-ran. Our greatest Olympic heroes have always counted on their equipment, in training and competition, to provide every possible (legal) advantage. (American track and field athlete Justin Gatlin is even using high-speed cameras and biometrics in his quest to take gold from Usain Bolt.)
In their own words, the most renowned U.S. Olympians of the past geek out on the gear that helped them get to the podium, and this summer's athletes tell us what they'll be counting on in Rio.
MICHAEL JOHNSON - TRACK AND FIELD
Medals: Gold in Barcelona 1992, 2x Gold in Atlanta 1996, Gold in Sydney 2000
"In '96, I was six years into my professional career and Nike was making new spike plates for sprinters, which I didn't like that much. I was still wearing a spike plate that had been developed back in 1984. So I started working directly with the designers at Nike and their sports scientists to create a sprint spike that was specific to my feet and events. A big part of my success as a 200-meter sprinter was my ability to run the curve very efficiently. You need to have dorsal flexion when you place each foot to get power on the curve. You want to be able to feel each foot placement and the interaction between the foot and the track. With the gold shoes, we took out some areas of the spike plate that didn't really provide functionality to make them lighter. We took those areas out strategically, placing slots in the plate instead to achieve that flexibility. It would be speculation to say that the three-ounce difference made an x amount of difference in my time. Who knows? I'll be honest, a lot of it is psychological."
MARY WHIPPLE - ROWING
Medals: Silver in Athens 2004, Gold in Beijing 2008, Gold in London 2012
"There's a misconception that coxswains are just passengers in our boats. We're actually the reality check, somewhere between a teammate and a coach. My job is to figure out how we can be rowing better and make calls accordingly. So we rely on a piece of equipment called a CoxBox, which is a computer that tells us our stroke rate and is connected to speakers in the boat to amplify my voice. The ability to communicate with someone back in the stern is awesome, and my rowers' ability to hear me keeps things from getting chaotic. When we're in a race, the coxswain is looking down at the CoxBox, steering, and telling the rowers commands like 'Okay, in two strokes we're going to take it down two beats.' Then I'll look at my computer and tell them when we're on rhythm. If we've done it right, the feel of the boat will be better and we'll be going faster."
BRANDON WYNN - GYMNASTICS
"For me, heading into Rio, monitoring my body composition is really important. I like to train heavier, then lose a little bit of weight for competition. Under Armour has a tracking kit called HealthBox—an app, band, heart-rate monitor, and scale—that I use to monitor my calories and body-fat percentage. If I'm going to burn 3,000 calories on a daily basis, I want to be eating at least 3,000 calories. When you track your day-in and day-out activities, you can see each of those calories. Before, manipulating all those factors had always been kind of a guessing game. Now I can be 3 or 4 percent more accurate, and it actually makes a difference. Gymnasts are really lean athletes. If you're sub-6 percent body fat and you want to lose three pounds, that's a very tedious task. And if you lose three pounds of body mass versus three pounds of muscle mass, that can make a big difference in your performance. When I get on the rings and I'm three pounds lighter, I can absolutely tell."
MIKAELA MAYER - BOXING
"Under Armour completely designed a bo boot for us. It looks very different from other boots and is made with a material that uses ClutchFit technology—the entire boot molds perfectly to your foot. It's almost like I'm slipping into a really thick sock. They also added mesh to the boot to create breathable air pockets so our feet don't overheat. When it's time to train in the ring, we also use little sensors from a company called Hykso in our hand wraps. They calculate the number of punches we throw, how many of each kind of punch we throw, and how many seconds we take between each combination. After each fight, we go through all the stats. The most important thing that I've picked up is that I used to punch every four to six seconds. Now I'm punching every three to four seconds. That's something I never would have thought about. You don't just feel like you're improving. Statistically, you are improving."
SHANNON MILLER - GYMNASTICS
Medals: 2x Silver and 3x Bronze in Barcelona 1992, 2x Gold in Atlanta 1996
"We were always told: Keep your grips and your chalk in your gym bags. Those were two things you didn't want to be without. My leather handgrips were specially made for me by a man in Nebraska. You had to break them into an exact shape, so they would mold to your hand and surround the bar. For the chalk, you'd take a spray bottle and mix water and chalk to make a paste that would help you to stick to the bar. When I was at my first National Championship, I reached for a spray bottle and mixed it up with the men's team's, which had sugar water in it. They use it for the parallel bars, but it made my grips so slick that I actually ended up flying off the uneven bars."
ALLYSON FELIX - TRACK AND FIELD
Medals: Silver in Athens 2004, Gold and Silver in Beijing 2008, 3x Gold in London 2012, Rio Bound
"For a little over two years I've been working with Nike to develop my own spikes. I've always had a personalized touch with them, but this is the first time that they've built a shoe specifically for me. I'm kind of unique in terms of what I like. Most sprinters like a very rigid shoe, but I like one that feels like an extension of my foot. So these are very minimal. They used Nike's new Flyknit technology for the upper. The plate with the spikes is 3D printed—that's completely new technology."
MARTY NOTHSTEIN - SPRINT CYCLING
Medals: Silver in Atlanta 1996, Gold in Sydney 2000
"I came along in an era when the technology was really starting to take off in the world of cycling with the usage of carbon fiber and titanium. That's still prevalent today—the bikes haven't changed a whole lot since '96 and 2000. While I was racing, wind tunnels were kind of new. That led to the solid rear wheel, which has huge aerodynamic advantages. I laugh when I look back at some photos of me in '96. I'd have a one-piece skin suit, which everybody wore, but you'd have your collar flapping in your face. You don't see that anymore. For me, I had to have all my uniforms custom-made. My quads were 35 inches around. Like most cyclists, I wasn't near normal."
RYAN LOCHTE - SWIMMING
Medals: 2x Gold and 2x Bronze in Beijing 2008, 2x Gold and 2x Silver and Bronze in London 2012, Rio Bound
"I've been wearing Speedo since I was eight, when I first started swimming. I've watched the development of the Speedo suits and remember back to the Aquablade suit, which felt like a parachute when you were putting it on. Today, you put on the LZR Racer X, it's like part of your skin. The old full-body suits took me at least 30 minutes to get on, and sometimes they'd rip. Now the technology has gotten to where the fabric has better stretch. And the compression of the LZR Racer X kind of holds you together. You can feel it going through the water. I've always had a little superstition thing, where I have to have a new suit every race. It's like when you buy a pair of brand-new shoes—the smell, the feel, it's amazing. I feel the exact same way when I put on a fresh suit."
ARIEL HSING - TABLE TENNIS
In the London 2012 games, at 16, Hsing nearly upset the No. 2 seed, Chinese star Li Xiaoxia, becoming the American hope for table tennis.
"I used a specific pair of table-tennis shoes from Butterfly. You want to be comfortable. But the thing that separates table-tennis shoes from other competition shoes, like for running or for track, is that table-tennis shoes have to be very, very low to the ground. You do a lot of side-to-side movements at the table, and if the shoes are too high, then it's really easy to roll your ankle."
MEB KEFLEZIGHI - MARATHON
Medals: Silver Athens 2004
"I train twice a day. Instead of doing another run in the evening, I'll go on the elliptical because it helps take out some lactic acid and gives me a recovery workout with no impact. I can go for two hours. That's an assurance. I also started wearing Oxysox compression socks in 2004, after the Athens Olympics. I was one of the first runners to wear them in a race, and people thought I was crazy. I think they're good for recovery purposes and help my circulation. I will train in them, and I'll have them on before a flight. I use them quite a bit except for when I'm sleeping. You're looking for any advantage that is natural."
PETER WESTBROOK - FENCING
Medals: Bronze Los Angeles 1984
Westbrook is the only American male since 1904 to medal in the individual sabre event.
"I don't know how we fenced without electrical equipment to track scoring. I mean, I did it most of my career, but when I fenced with electrical equipment I could actually win national titles and make world championship finals. You're just putting another thin jacket with electric sensors over your whites. Not a problem. You can get it as tight or as loose as you want. As an American in those days, without electric equipment, judges screwed us. I got screwed so many times. You were at the mercy of how the international judges felt and their honor system. The electrical equipment revolutionized fencing. Now there is nothing they can say. The light is on. You'll get the touch."
MISSY FRANKLIN - SWIMMING
Medals: 4x Gold and Bronze London 2012, Rio Bound
"I'm pretty picky about my nose clips. Speedo makes a good pair for my backstroke that I started wearing in 2011. It's a very weird feeling, not being able to breathe through your nose, and I'm particular about how it pinches my nostrils together. I wear the same one for practice and competition. It's adjustable. If I'm going to be wearing the nose plug for a long practice, I can kind of loosen it up. Whereas in a race I want to make sure that sucker doesn't come off, so I normally put it really tight."
*This article origionally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Seniorhelpline.