Eight years ago, looking to make up that hundredths-of-a-second edge between fifth place and first, USA Luge signed an agreement with a Chicago-area ophthalmologist.
Barry Seiller had a system to help athletes adjust the way they see- "weightlifting for the eyes," he called it- that he claimed would help American athletes close that fraction-of-a-second gap.
Four years ago, it appeared to pay off, as U.S. doubles teams finished second and third at the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. It was the first Olympic medals for Americans in the sport.
"We're confident that visual fitness played a role in our success," said Brian Grimmette, who teamed with Brian Martin for the bronze medal in Nagano.
Seiller's clientele has since expanded to include the U.S. skiing, snowboarding and bobsledding teams, as well as the entire athletic program at Georgia Tech.
His "Vizual Edge" program evaluates hand-eye coordination, near-far focusing, visual memory and eye alignment. It then prescribes a series of exercises to eliminate any compensatory mechanisms the person had developed and train the eyes to work more efficiently.
The exercises are done with the aid of special glasses and a personal computer, running specialized software.
"Certain athletes can process information faster than others, or process it more efficiently," Seiller said, noting the ability of players such as Michael Jordan to find and focus on the basket from any angle in any situation.
"I call it the superhighway theory. The best athletes don't have a lot of on ramps, with a lot of clutter, false images and inaccurate info. As a consequence, they don't have as many decisions to make, and they're much more efficient."
Successful Olympic hockey teams from the Soviet Union and East Germany used some of the perception-enhancing techniques, as have some ophthalmologists and optometrists in the United States.
But Seiller is the first to combine all the tests and design the necessary training software.
In sliding sports, vision training helps bobsled drivers spot critical points on a run in time to make minute adjustments that can make a run faster.
In slalom skiing, it means skiers can read the terrain and the location of the gates more efficiently, making better decisions on turns.
"Vision also affects your balance, and you can imagine how important balance is in sports," Seiller said.
The training, which involves two or three 15- to 20-minute sessions a week for four to eight weeks, creates a permanent change in the way athletes perceive the world around them.
Seiller said he checks up on athletes at least once a year, and rarely if ever sees any regression.
"It's like riding a bike; once you do it you always know how to do it," he said. "You use it to read an article or drive a car or watch TV."
The system has become part of the training for a number of Olympic sliders and skiers, and they are sold on the results.
"Competing at an elite level requires training everything, strengthening the entire body, including the eyes," Grimmette said.
"After several weeks of vision training, my timing on the course reached new levels of accuracy."
Seiller compares it to an athlete finding the exact point of peak performance.
"They develop visual confidence, and that's like being in 'the zone'" he said. "Everything just falls together."firstname.lastname@example.org