“Fifteen seconds! You’ve got to move quick! Keep your hands in the water! Move that water! C’mon! Five … four … three … two … one!”
John Whitehill’s words, delivered with an almost sermon-like intensity, rumble like a wave over the heads of his nine research project participants in the Lombardi Recreation Pool.
The participants, straining against the taut tether of an underwater rope, wearing colorful gloves of orange and yellow, bound forward, willing their bodies to reach further than the rope will allow. The water spins and splashes around them with manic intensity.
You wonder: Just what in the world is going on here?
Five days a week, through a variety of workouts and drills designed to measure the participants’ increases in such measures as lactate threshold, strength, balance and agility, Whitehill is hoping to gather data that will help the wider world of human performance better understand the benefits of water-based fitness regimes.
“Everyone,” says Whitehill, a 27-year-old graduate student in the School of Public Health who himself has a competitive background in water sports such as water polo, “says water is good for athletes … but how good? There are no studies that have been able to scientifically prove the benefits of a water-based fitness curriculum for high end athletes.”
Then Whitehill, his Minnesota Twins hat on backward, his feet still wet from all the water kicked by his participants onto the deck of the Lombardi Pool, flashes a megawatt grin: “Plus, this is really fun. I really love this stuff.”
Whitehill’s adviser is Nora Constantino, an associate professor in the School of Public Health. In nearly 13 years at Nevada, Constantino’s research agenda has ranged from physical activity across one’s lifespan, the effects of hormones on bone density and childhood obesity.
She says studies such as Whitehill’s have multiple layers of benefits – from those participating to the potential of expanding the knowledge base for human physiology and performance.
“The participants will have a better understanding of the value of water in their training,” says Constantino, who, in addition to supervising Whitehill’s academic work is also a willing – and equally enthusiastic – participant in the study. In fact, she still drips from the morning’s workout as she speaks. “There’s also great value for John – he’s going to come away from this with a much stronger understanding of all the layers to do good, quality research.
“And this is going provide some good, quality, much-needed water research.”
Constantino says the potential for strong data is good with a project like Whitehill’s, so good, in fact, that she can foresee his study spawning multiple journal articles.
“There has been some research done on how people have used water to rehabilitate athletes,” she says. “But on the other hand, there hasn’t been as much research done on how we can push the well-conditioned athlete to a higher level. So John’s study could be a big piece of that puzzle.”
Whitehill, who received his undergraduate degree from Nevada after playing water polo at the United States Air Force Academy for three years, is more than willing to oblige.
He describes an underwater agility course that he and his brother, Doug, a business information systems major and participant in the study, have designed: through a combination of squeaky and floatable dog toys, boxes and rock climbing equipment, he hopes to measure new ways to develop an athlete’s agility.
“I grew up in Hawaii, went three years to the Air Force Academy, came to the University, helped teach in the exercise physiology lab, met Mary (Sanders, an adjunct faculty member and another key mentor) and we just sort of clicked on the value of water and what it can provide,” Whitehill says.
He then looks around the pool, watching as his participants, who include high-performance athletes such as rugby and soccer players, rock climbers and track and field athletes. They all have the flushed, invigorated look of athletes who somehow have added another important building block to their fitness regimens.
He adds: “Who would’ve thought that here I’d be in Reno, finally doing what I love to do?”