P3 Peak Performance Center, Santa Barbara, California: November 12, 2014
Dressed in Nike shorts, t-shirt, and basketball shoes—I watch Victoria Azarenka’s ponytail whip in all directions, as she explodes to her left, then to her right. The power of her lateral drive is registered on force plates and fed into a computer, while her movements are videoed by 10 high-speed cameras to capture a 360-degree view. It looks like she’s making a Gatorade commercial, except nothing that is being shot today is for public consumption. In the athletic world, the information being collected is considered top secret.
She’s doing a test called the, “one-off lateral skater.” Azarenka, aka, Vika, is going through a movement assessment at P3 Peak Performance Center. The data will give a detailed picture—the strengths and weaknesses—of how her body moves.
Vika has come to P3 as part of her quest to solve the injury quagmire that wrecked her 2014 season, ending her dominant two-year run. In the span of these two years, starting in 2012, Vika won the Australian Open twice, held the No. 1 spot for 51 weeks, won two medals at the London Olympics, and set a single-season women’s record for prize money ($7.9 million). In preparation for 2015, she made a deep commitment—mind, body, and spirit—to get back on track. Vika, in consultation with her longtime physiotherapist and osteopath, Fabrice Gautier, decided to revamp her performance team by hiring a new strength coach and consult with P3 to confirm some of the issues they’ve observed and take a deeper microscopic look.
I watch the reflective sensors—placed on her ankles, knees, hips, sternum and fourth vertebrae—shimmer as she moves. The P3 team is taking Vika through a series of tests that analyze key athletic movement patterns. The combination of 3D video and information from the force plates creates thousands of data points. All of this is done to achieve two main goals: prevent injuries and improve performance. The innovative method is the brain child of Dr. Marcus Elliott, the founder of P3. He calls the player profile he’s creating, “a movement fingerprint.”
Elliot, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, didn’t follow the typical sports science path, which emphasizes the cardiovascular, muscular, and metabolic systems. He chose to look deeply into how athletes move, focusing on the science of biomechanics. After all, sport is movement—life is movement. Athletes are described by how they move: explosive, fast, agile, a high-flyer. Elliott’s innovative process picked up speed in 2005 when he started his P3.
When Elliott’s team has completed their tests, his software will convert the information, with a Pixar-like transformation, into animation that will show Vika going through the movements as if she were literally a skeleton. With an ever-expanding database, Elliott can now flag movement dysfunctions that greatly increase an athlete’s risk of injury. As he likes to tell every athlete, “When we’re done, we’ll know everything about you.” By crunching this massive data set—joint angles, joint velocity, joint force, movement sequencing, strength and power curves, compensation patterns— Elliott can pinpoint where an athlete is likely to break down, if corrective measures aren’t taken. The idea of making predictions causes skeptics to roll their eyes, but the game-changing impact of science has always been its ability to predict outcomes.
Elliott’s interest in sports and training goes back to his early teens. His first subject was his little sister. When he was twelve, he designed workouts for her to do on their family ranch in Northern California (close to the small town of Preston and near the Russian River). “I’d create little circuit programs,” he explained with a smile, “things like: jump in the pool, touch the bottom 10 times, run around the walnut tree 5 times, do 25 jumping jacks, then push-ups.” Elliott excelled as an athlete and dreamed of being a big-time wide receiver, but at seventeen a catastrophic knee injury ended his football aspirations.
“I went from being on top of the world to being crazy depressed,” Elliott says. He still gets emotional talking about the injury. The injury pushed him to investigate ways to rehab his knee. Instead of just looking at the typical bodybuilding magazines like Muscle and Fitness, he read journals like Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, and researched the outcomes of youth ACL injuries.
Elliot’s injury changed his focus from athlete to scientist. He started his college education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, then completed medical school at Harvard, graduating in 1999. This is when Elliott faced the fork in the road moment.
He decided not to do a post-grad residency. This meant he would never be a doctor. Instead, he contacted Bert Zarins, the team physician for the New England Patriots and pitched a study on why NFL players and injury prevention. Zarin’s offered him a job.
Elliott began a study investigating the large number of hamstring injuries inflicting the Patriots. He also evaluated the strength and conditioning programs of other NFL teams to determine which ones were the most effective at preventing injuries. Hamstring injuries decreased for the Patriots and Elliott went on to become a sports-science consultant for the Utah Jazz and the Seattle Mariners, where he was the Major League Baseball’s first Director of Sports Science.
I stand next to Elliott as he watches Vika do her next test, the “drop box and jump.” I look around the gym. It’s a series of ideas integrated under one roof. Athletes swing kettle bells, do squats, Olympic lifts, throw med-balls, and use high-tech Keisers machines that create resistance through air pressure. I look up and see the wiring that connects the cameras to the computer command center. It’s a smart building.
As we watch Vika do her last test, I hear my name yelled. It surprises me. Am I getting in the way of the testing? It’s Vika’s new strength coach, Mike Brungardt. He says, “Go move Vika’s car, so she won’t get a parking ticket. Her keys are in her purse. It’s the Mercedes SUV.” He says it like a command, something I can’t refuse.
Okay, now this may seem a little odd that I’m being told to go into Vika’s purse and move her car. It may also seem odd that her strength coach is ordering me around. If you noticed my byline, my last name is also Brungardt. I need to confess in the name of journalistic transparency: Mike is my older brother (and I have to do whatever he says, even it means rifling through a woman’s purse). Over the last 20-plus years I have collaborated with him on books and articles in the area of fitness and health, so this project is natural for us.
Bringing in Mike was Vika’s major tweak to her team. He does not come from a tennis background. For 17 years he was the strength and conditioning coach for the San Antonio Spurs. Vika’s team felt like they wanted to try a different approach. Gautier and Mike have a long-standing relationship. Gautier is also Tony Parker’s physiotherapist, along with other elite NBA players. They collaborated together when Mike was with the Spurs. With Vika, they’re back together again. After Vika pulled out of the Wuhan
Tournament last September, it hurt her just to walk. In an intensive and daily effort, they combined their skill sets— rehabilitation and strength training—to get her to move pain free and make her stronger.
I follow orders. I go through Vika’s purse; it’s a Hello Kitty purse. I find the keys. Outside, I scan the street for Vika’s Mercedes. I smell the ocean that is just a block away. I see a BMW, an Audi, and then her Mercedes. They call Santa Barbara the American Riviera. I hop in the SUV and move her car to the other side of the street, parking next to The Fox Wine Co. This area is officially called The Funk Zone. The neighborhood is all about wine, art, food, music, and for those in the know, sports science.
I head back into P3 and put her keys back in Hello Kitty. Everyone has gathered at the computer command center. I join them. As they’re waiting for Eric Leidersdorf, a biomechanist and movement analyst at P3, to pull of Vika’s information, Elliott is on a passionate, slightly frustrated roll, (what he self-deprecatingly refers to as his soap box). He’s explaining his method: “What I do is really earthy sports science. I can show it to an athlete or his agent or his team’s trainer. I can point to the screen and say, ‘Look, you see where his lower tibia is in relation to his upper tibia? That’s not good for the middle, this point right here. That’s where his stress fracture is, right at that point. That’s what the math tells us.’ I can walk away from the computer screen, go over to the athlete and put my finger right on that spot on his tibia. The athlete will wince. Then I explain that he only does this movement sequence on that leg. That’s why the other leg is fine. And most importantly, I can fix it, so it won’t happen again.”
Leidersdorf (a Stanford grad with a degree in biomechanical engineering and a former tennis player) gives the cue that he’s ready. All attention goes the computer screen. He brings up, in a single view, the video capture integrated with the information from the force plates. Vika’s team is able to see how she moves and how she applies force in those movements. So in a vertical jump, they look to see if she is pushing off both legs equally (or close to equally). They’ll look at her weight distribution when she lands. In the “one-off lateral skater” they’ll see if she’s applying equal lateral force on each leg. They’ll examine the key moments in each movement pattern.
Even with just this first look, lots of information can be gleaned. It confirms much of what Vika’s team suspected and Elliott is giving them a deeper more detailed dive into
the issues. All this information is guarded. Players and pro teams have confidentiality agreements with Elliott. Vegas would love to see this information. Elliott will crunch these numbers and give them context. Gautier and Mike will analyze the information and integrate it into Vika’s training program back at her home gym, The Yard.
The Yard: Hermosa Beach, California
Vika pulls the barbell up past her knees, then all hell breaks loose: her hips thrust forward, propelling the bar straight up toward her chest as her whole body extends from the balls of the feet, heels lifting off the ground, like she’s trying to jump. At peak extension, the way a rattlesnake explosively strikes out of its coil and then recoils, her body reverses directions, quickly dropping low into a half squat to catch the bar at her shoulders. With a “huh” of breath, she pushes out of the squat to standing, completing a repetition of the exercise called “the clean.” It is an exercise that is an athletic event.
After finishing an intense workout sequence, which includes cleans, squats, deadlifts, Vika is exhausted, but riding a workout high. She turns to Mike and says, “That was a butt load.”
“It was literally a butt load,” he agrees, smiling. Her non-technical, half-joking description of the workout—a butt load—accurately describes one of the major objectives of her training program: her posterior chain (a.k.a. her butt).
Every morning Vika arrives at the gym, with two cups of very special coffee in travel mugs—one for her and one for Mike. It’s Vika’s secret bulletproof blend. She teases my brother, telling him, “I bring it for you because you’re old and you need all the help he can get.” She explains that it has the good fats for the brain, “This way you can kill me with a clear mind.” They sip between sets. She promises she’ll make me a special coffee.
The Yard is a storefront gym in the heart of Hermosa Beach. It’s a unique combination of a local community gym and a destination spot for A-list athletes. The owner, Jeremy “Troll” Subin, a former power lifting champion, has created a facility that has everything an athlete needs. The Yard is the official training center of the USA Elite Volleyball Program. Subin shares his wealth of practical and science-based knowledge with anyone
who wants to get better and work hard, from local high school teams to elite athletes. The list of athletes who have trained at The Yard range from Tom Brady and Wes Welker to Tony Parker and Brent Barry to Russell Wilson and Andre Reed. It’s also Vika’s home gym.
The “controversial” part of Vika’s training program is the Olympic lifts. Some coaches and athletes feel these lifts can cause injuries. Tennis players have traditionally shied away from these moves. Mike disagrees and has made them the centerpiece of her training program. “There’s nothing inherently dangerous about the lifts, if you do them correctly,” he says. “And we always stress technique. They’ll actually make her joints more durable and injury resistant, if you build up slowly, fully adapting in each training cycle.”
Growing up, our basement was a weight room. We had the Sears Ted Williams weight set (cement coated with plastic) and the adjustable flat and incline bench with the leg extension and curl attachment. As the youngest I would watch. The equipment expanded yearly: a homemade squat rack, metal plate, dumbbells, and an Olympic bar. But Mike’s big transformation came in high school, when he got the opportunity, to go train with the Kansas City Chiefs and their strength coach Alvin Roy. Roy was America’s first professional strength coach. The Chiefs had just won Super Bowl lV (1970). Our father and Roy became friends in the army. In the 1970s, athletes were advised to stay away from weight training. It was still believed that lifting would make you muscle bound and slow. Roy broke that myth by helping college teams win national championships and pro teams win Super Bowls. Roy also used the Olympic lifts as part of his training program.
Vika wasn’t doing Olympic lifts with her previous trainer, so she’s had to go through a learning phase. “Tennis players are technique and movement oriented, so she learned the lifts quickly,” Mike says. From Vika’s point of view, she likes them because they’re not boring. “The Olympic lifts have been my biggest change,” she says. “I’ve never done anything like it. To learn the proper technique, the flow of the lifts and really understand the fundamentals has been educational. I really like it. It’s been fascinating to challenge myself with the weights this way. It’s a competition, me against the weight.”
“The Olympic lifts are a tried-and-true method for creating power,” Mike says. “They exercise the entire body as a unit. They will improve Vika’s efficiency in both triple
flexion and triple extension. In athletic terms this means it will optimize her ability to load (flexion) and explode (extension). This is an ongoing goal for every athlete.” The risk-benefit ratio is clearly on the side of the Olympic lifts. You can also adjust the lifts so they work for any body type. Just look at the Spurs: Tim, Manu, and Tony always did them. They never got hurt lifting and they’ve won more playoff games than any trio in NBA history. Vika loves basketball and the Spurs (she wants to work on her dunk). The “Spurs Way” is a proven path and the gold standard in the sports world. This makes Vika confident in the effectiveness of these lifts. Basketball has been a bond.
They also share another unexpected bond. They’re cursing soul mates. I once dubbed my brother the Shakespeare of swearing for his unique ability to combine curse words and release them in a flurry. Vika also has a way of being poetically profane. Vika’s cursing is often misunderstood. They’ve had philosophical discussions around the ethics and metaphysics of cursing. Discussing how one should try to curse respectfully, not to attack or disrespect. Agreeing it’s okay to curse for therapeutic release, as opposed to repressing and internalizing. And also concurring that it’s okay to curse as a celebration, after, for example, completing a lift that is a new personal best.
“It’s not just the Olympic lifts,” Mike says. “That’s just one piece. It’s also not just me. It’s teamwork. When it comes to Vika’s body, I closely collaborate with Fabrice (Gautier). As both her physio and osteopath, he knows Vika’s body better than anyone.” Gautier brings a unique skill set. As a former rugby and basketball player, he understands the body from the medical and athletic side.
Gautier has used an innovative training tool, the Waff, to rehab her feet. The Waff, developed in France, resembles a round, slightly puffy throw pillow. It’s designed to increase blood flow, and strengthen all the muscles and tendons of the ankles and feet. Vika goes through a series of moves on the Waff before every workout. She shifts her body weight in all directions to engage different muscles in her feet. This process has been essential in fixing her foot issues.
I ask Mike to grade her on the two important intangibles: work ethic and recovery discipline.
For work ethic: He gives her an A+. “She works hard; she really pushes it. She reminds me of a Spur. She likes to have fun, but she knows when it’s time to go to work and she gets to it. And she doesn’t complain.”
For recovery discipline, he gives her an A–. “An A+ is impossible here because life gets in the way. And, you never really know what the other person is doing, because you can’t monitor someone 24/7. But Vika is good at self-care. She knows it’s important to get her rest, to eat right. She likes to eat healthy. And she tries to limit stress and use all her recovery tools like massage. Her work with Fabrice is also a big asset in this area.
After the workout, Vika heads back across Hermosa Avenue to her “Benz” SUV. Feeling a connection to the car, after moving it, I wondered why she chose it. Choices about dogs and cars usually reveal something about one’s personality. I looked the car up online. The advertising copy reminded me of her: Created to conquer challenges on six continents (win all the majors)… Its classic upright shape (reflects Vika’s posture)... Its confident capability on any surface of the earth (clay, grass and hard court).
As we drive to lunch, I ask Mike the key question that swirls around the clean and the snatch: “Do you ever worry about Vika getting hurt as hard as she hits the weights?”
“No more than I worry about her getting injured running. My job is to make her stronger and enable her to generate more power. If I don’t do these two things I’ve failed. Her strength has doubled and in some cases nearly tripled in these key lifts. There’s a risk factor when you push the body. You just have to try and be smart about it, and not over do it.”
As Mike and I drive to get some lunch our conversation digresses. We get into the irresistible comparisons, when you look at great athletes. It’s hard not to ask the silly question: How would they excel at another sport? Would LeBron have been a great tight end? When you watch Vika, with her size and athletic ability, you can’t help but see her in the WNBA. A pro volleyball player? Women’s rugby? She still has all her NCAA eligibility in sports outside tennis. She could win an NCAA title in basketball.
We park across the street from an eatery called Lemonade. You can get healthy food at a reasonable price.
Off the Court and Beyond: Manhattan Beach, California
A few days before Team Vika embarked to Australia, she invited Mike, me, and her massage therapist, Stephanie, over for dinner. When she’s not training or competing her warrior side disappears. She cooks a healthy gourmet meal. It’s clear she’s a foodie. She makes salmon marinated in a miso sauce, a quinoa stir fry with egg-whites, a baked free-range chicken with a wine sauce, a mixed-green salad with avocado, peppers and tomatoes. Her eating habits are a key piece of her training program.
She serves dinner buffet style. In the kitchen area is a water filtration machine that would make any health nut weep with joy. I wish I’d brought over a bunch of empty bottles (glass of course) to fill and take home. Then there’s her juicer and the Vitamix. If ever there is an item to covet, it’s a Vitamix.
After dinner, Vika asks if anyone wants coffee. I request the Bulletproof. It’s my big chance to get a glimpse of the ingredients and a taste of the secret recipe. All I can gather from my angle of observation is for the butter she uses ghee. I’m sure it’s grass-fed organic ghee. The coffee is delicious. It’s smooth and creamy with all the good fats. My brother and Stephanie have a tea.
Over coffee and tea, Vika takes out her phone and shows us several versions of the portrait she’s having painted by a Los Angeles artist named James Haunt. She likes Warhol and the portrait is done in a pop-art style. She asks us to choose the one we like best. Vika says she’s already decided. I make my choice. I choose Vika’s pick. She likes the color scheme. “The yellow is like sun; blue is like water; red, grey are like earth,” she says.
After dinner we watch a movie, Law Abiding Citizen with Jamie Foxx.
My brain is infused with too many healthy fats (blame it on the coffee’s grass-fed ghee) to just passively watch a movie. Instead, I listen to the ocean outside. I reflect on the evening. If Vika wasn’t an elite tennis player with the hot spotlight of being a former number one, I would say she is kind of an international hipster-artist-foodie, more light than dark with her Hello Kitty purse and bright (often pink) clothes (no brooding black), and her willful upbeat attitude. “Every morning I try to wake up with a big smile on my face to start a good day,” she says. “Then I take a little time to do my own things, to focus my energy and attention, to see what I can do to improve—get a little better every day and push forward to a place I’ve never been before.” She aspires to look toward the light.
The next day, after she finishes one butt load of a workout, Vika invites Mike and I to lunch. She takes us to a healthy, organic Japanese restaurant called Rice in Manhattan Beach.
For Vika, what’s already happened in her life creates perspective. Born in 1989, in Minsk, she comes from a working class family. Her father was a driving instructor and her mother worked at a tennis club, enabling her to get a racquet in Vika’s hands when she was seven to help her burn off energy. "From the beginning, I really wanted to play all the time, and I wanted to play professionally," In 2004, when she was fifteen, it became clear she was a gifted.
Seizing the moment, her mother arranged, with the help of Russian hockey star Nikolai Khabibulin (Vika’s mother was friends with Khabitbulin’s wife), for Vika to move to Scottsdale, Arizona, where she could train with top coaches. In 2005, Vika won the junior Australian Open. This began her move up the ranks: in 2006 she cracked the top 100, in 2007 the top 30, in 2008 the top 20, and in 2009 the top 10.
From the start she had to perform when the stakes and the pressure was high. As a kid, if she missed balls on the practice wall or didn’t perform at a high level on the court, the next up-and-comer would take her spot. When she came to America, if she didn’t win at the junior level, she would have gotten a one-way ticket back to Minsk. And when she turned pro, if she didn’t climb up the ranks, her dream would have quickly faded or she would have become a middle-of-the-pack pro, fighting to qualify and make enough money to stay on the tour. Vika has always rose to the occasion.
During lunch she shows us pictures of the country house she built in Belarus. The countryside is beautiful. The house is really nice, not gaudy, tasteful. A lot of the pictures are of the garden. She’s excited about having a garden.
And she’s excited that her grandma will live there. It was a conversation with her grandmother in 2011, when she was going through a tough stretch on the court that inspired her to keep playing. Her grandmother gave her a tough love history lesson on the days when Stalin ran Russia. Professor Andrew Savchenko (Ph.D., Brown University), an expert on Belarusian culture, in a phone interview, explained how Belarusians have their feet planted in two worlds simultaneously: Europe and the West, and the traditional Russian totalitarian system. This gives them a flexible personality and attitude, both tough and open. Savchenko said the country promotes an attitude can be summed up by the Belarusian phrase pamiarkouny, which means tolerant.
Vika is battling in the big wide-open world (not bounded by east or west) to define her identity. She is both guarded and open, badass and sweet, warrior and caretaker, expanding and integrating. There’s a moment in an elite athlete’s life, after she’s been to the top of the mountain, when things get existential. When the, “what’s the meaning of life questions” get asked: How important are relationships and love in relation to work passion? Do I want children? How do things change after the adrenaline of a dream achieved fades? How does the way one looks at life change after a broken heart? Only the unlucky ones never get their heart broken.
For Vika, 2015 will be more accurately judged after the U.S. Open. The good news is she’s healthy, and she’s a threat on the court, a dreaded early draw, beating top ten players. At this point, the idea of a ‘comeback” morphs into another idea––a bigger, more sustainable idea, as she bonds with the new members of her team. It becomes about evolution, about embracing the process, moment by moment. The pain and joy of each moment, then letting it go. Evolution is badass. Evolution is bigger than comeback. Evolution takes time. Ask Darwin.
––Kurt Brungardt, Hungry Fan Contributor