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A Splash of Science in Swimming and Diving

As the world comes together to celebrate this summer’s 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, Olympic athletes prepare for the ultimate competition of sporting excellence. When each competitor displays remarkable feats of athleticism, there is also incredible science at work!

If you check out this summer’s aquatic events, you’ll see that while the human body is not as naturally suited to the water as dolphins, sharks and other aquatic animals, there’s a major advantage we do have – we understand how science works. In addition to Olympic swimmers’ and divers’ extraordinary strength, skill and discipline, they also apply scientific principles to each performance.

Keep reading to learn how science plays a role in some of your favorite Olympic events!


Swimming and Fluid Dynamics

To find success in the pool, the National Science Foundation tells us that athletes need to master what is known as fluid dynamics, or the study of how water affects the motion of a swimmer’s body. Fluid dynamics involves principles like:

  • Propulsion or thrust, the forces that move a swimmer forward in the water
  • Drag, the resistance of the water to the motion of the body
  • Buoyancy, the upward force exerted by water that helps keep swimmers afloat

Drag, which primarily is caused by friction, pressure and waves, is countered by thrust. To maximize thrust, swimmers use skillful techniques that involve arm strokes, leg kicks and body movements that are as efficient as possible. Motions like cupping hands and churning arms help to push as much water as possible behind the swimmer.


Diving Into Physics

Newton’s third law of motion teaches us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When divers project themselves from a springboard or platform, they use strong muscles in their legs and feet to push into the surface beneath them. This energy is transferred into the board or platform, then back to the diver, helping to propel them in the opposite direction.

Another physics principle that is put into action in the sport of diving is known as angular momentum. Simple momentum is defined as the quantity of motion that applies to moving objects. Angular momentum refers to momentum with rotational motion, like the tucks, flips and twists of a diver moving from a board into the water. These athletes generate this kind of momentum by swinging their arms either forward and upward (in a backward takeoff) or forward and downward (for a forward somersault). By changing their body’s shape as they move through the air, they can control both their speed and the center of their mass.

The next time you’re watching this amazing event, notice how divers use controlled force and angular momentum to twist, flip and rotate their bodies gracefully into the water!


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