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What does it Take to Be an Olympic Swimmer?

Posted Date: 7/24/2012

Lia Neal, U.S.A. Swim Team

Lia Neal is the youngest Brooklyn Olympian at 17 years old, and will compete as a member of the 100m freestyle relay in London. Lia also stands out because she’s only the 2nd female swimmer of African American descent to make the U.S. Olympic swim team. Since the age of eight, Lia has been on a swim team, getting up at five in the morning to drive to a two-hour swim practice in Manhattan,  going to school, completing a second  two-hour practice, and then going home to finish her schoolwork. Competitive swimming takes a lot of commitment and demands the body to be highly efficient.

“Oxygen is required for muscles to function properly,” states Dr. Marcus, Director of Pediatric Pulmonology and Allergy. “Due to the intense physical requirements of competing at such an elite level, Olympic athletes have become incredibly efficient at delivering oxygen to the muscles via blood.” Swimming is an intense aerobic workout, and requires a strong cardiopulmonary system. For Lia, her long-term dedication to the sport has made her lungs more efficient at delivering oxygen rich blood from her heart to her muscles.

Swimming requires very controlled and well-paced breathing.  It is one of the few forms of aerobic exercise in which the athlete cannot breathe whenever he or she wants. This forces the swimmer to breathe at a slower pace, taking in deeper breaths to compensate. “World class swimmers, like Lia, pay attention to the detail of their technique in order to coordinate their strokes with their breathing,” notes Dr. Marcus. By training at an elite level, the muscles surrounding Lia’s ribcage and lungs can expand further and stay active for a longer period of time, allowing for fewer breaths between strokes.

As a swimmer inhales, tiny air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, expand. When Lia holds her breath as she’s swimming, the alveoli are open for a longer period of time. “The more open alveoli are in this expanded state, the easier it is for oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass in a shorter period of time,” explains Dr. Marcus. Additionally, more capillaries grow around the alveoli as a result of repeated exercise. After swimming for over 11 years, Lia’s increased number of alveolar capillaries allows her to get more energy with every breath.


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