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Former Olympic Swimming Trainer
Now Studying Elite Athletes
February 21, 2000

About 18 months ago, Jaci VanHeest gave up the quest for Olympic gold to pursue Husky blue. As director of physiology for USA Swimming, she was working closely with elite swimmers at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., but decided to leave a job many people would consider exciting to come to UConn.

"I didn't feel intellectually challenged any more, and I wanted to do more research. Most of all, I missed interacting with students," says VanHeest, now an assistant professor of kinesiology in the Neag School of Education.

There may have been little challenge left in training Olympic athletes because VanHeest and her colleagues had accomplished much of what they set out to do - help a group of athletes achieve their personal best.

New Training Approach
VanHeest was hired as an exercise physiologist for USA Swimming in 1994, and 18 months later was promoted to the position of director of physiology. She headed a team of medical and scientific experts trying out a new training approach on swimmers hoping to make the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, adopting a model similar to one used by the former Soviet Union.

The swimmers became full-time residents of the training facility and for 18 months prior to the Atlanta games, every morsel of food they ate, thought they had and move they made, were closely monitored and analyzed by VanHeest and her group. Of the 11 swimmers in-residence, five made the U.S. team and all of them won medals during the games, including Amy Van Dyken who brought home four gold medals.

"My work with elite athletes has given me wonderful experiences that I can share with students," VanHeest says. "Instead of reading about theories in books, my students also learn about their practical applications from real life examples of athletes." Many of VanHeest's students intend to pursue careers as athletic trainers and she hopes that stories about her experiences at the U.S. Olympic training center inspire them to aim high.

Searching for Answers
One of the greatest inspirations in her own life has been her father, a protestant minister. At the age of eight, Jaci, the youngest of five children, caused a small explosion while playing with a chemistry set in the church's parsonage. Showing considerable restraint, the Reverend Jack VanHeest responded to his daughter's destructive mischief with words of encouragement rather than an angry lecture. He told her he believed she would "grow up and one day find the answer to something important, and make a difference."

His faith became her conviction. Whether that "answer" is linked to her teaching or research is unclear to VanHeest but she says, "I'm in a daily search to find the answers."

In teaching, she feels she's making a difference when a student comes to her office and tells her, "I was thinking about what you said in class the other day." VanHeest believes it's her job to get them to think and to question. "That's the best thing I can do for them," she says.

VanHeest's research focuses on three major themes: the female competitive athlete, the impact of chronic physical training on children, and exercise and pregnancy. She says she focuses on women and children because, "so little is known about these two groups of athletes." Much of what is known about the human body and how it is affected by exercise is based on the male model, she says. Even coaching methods are usually driven by the experiences of male coaches and male athletes.

In her most recent research project, VanHeest and Sally Reis, a professor of educational psychology and principal investigator for The National Center for the Gifted and Talented, have joined forces to better understand female Olympians and the critical elements that were either barriers or springboards to their success.

The partnership is a fortunate one for VanHeest. "As a junior scholar, I'm privileged to be working with Sally," she says. "She is a role model for me as an internationally known female scholar."

VanHeest's ties to the Olympics continue on several other fronts. She is a consultant to USA Swimming, and serves on planning committees for the volleyball and field hockey teams and triatheletes. She also participates in a program for the U.S. Olympic Committee aimed at developing training procedures for young athletes.

Recently, VanHeest was appointed to SportSmart, a national advisory board organized by the Harvard-Smithson ian Center for Astrophysics. The group of a dozen experts is developing educational programs aimed at using sport to enhance women's and girls' knowledge of math and science.

Janice Palmer