By Kim Constantinesco
Throughout high jumper Amy Acuff’s athletic career, she has arched her back and defied gravity, all in search of reaching her highest peak.
The 39-year-old Texas native is already a five-time Olympian and seven-time world championship finalist, but she has her sights set on defying age, and reaching the 2016 Games in Rio. If she makes it to Brazil, she will be 41 years old, competing against athletes nearly half her age, and she will set a new American track and field record for appearing in the most Olympics.
Her secret to staying competitive as the years pass by might just lie in her own company — Winning Edge Apps — which helps athletes, including herself, find their peak performance using digitized training methods.
Olympic sights at a young age
Born in Port Arthur, Acuff first set foot on the track at 5 years old after watching her older brother run the lanes.
Then a family trip to the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles churned a true interest in the sport.
“It left a pretty good impression on me as to what was possible in the sport,” Acuff said. “Having something visible and memorable like that brought it into my consciousness.”
During the following Winter Olympic Games, Acuff’s desire to actually compete while wearing our country’s colors got spurred on by one of her elementary school teachers as the class was watching an event on the school’s TV.
“I remember her distinctively saying ‘You know how special these people are here doing this things? None of you in the room will ever be good enough to be doing what they’re doing.’ It’s funny that’s what stuck in my head, but I think what stuck in my head was me wanting to challenge it. I was grappling with that idea that I couldn’t make it.”
When not on the track or on a basketball court, the hot south Texas summers meant a lot of time indoors for Acuff, so at 12, she taught herself how to high jump by watching VHS tapes. Eventually growing to 6’2″, Acuff was a natural fit for the sport. She never had a coach in high school, but she was named the National High School Athlete of the Year in 1993 by Track and Field News.
Of sound mind and body
Acuff went on to win three NCAA indoor championships and two outdoor championships at UCLA, where she also earned a degree in biology. After a highly-decorated college career, she entered her first Olympics — the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where she placed 24th.
Ready to up her performance in the 2000 Olympics, Acuff was involved in a car accident just three weeks before the Olympic trials. That’s when she fully dipped her body and mind into the world of acupuncture, which allowed her to qualify and compete in Sydney.
Following the accident, she moved to Austin to study Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture at the Academy of Oriental Medicine.
As she was completing her studies, she competed in her third Olympic Games in 2004, where she barely missed the podium with a 4th place finish.
A constant challenge seeker, Acuff decided that she wanted to learn how to build an iOS app on the heels of the 2008 Beijing Games, so she taught herself how to code alongside training and seeing the occasional patient for acupuncture treatment.
“I don’t know why it wasn’t on my radar in college,” Acuff said of her interest in IT. “I probably should have majored in it. I really like computer languages. I really like writing code. It’s exciting when you plug in the Christmas lights so to speak and you see the results of something you’ve written. It’s super nerdy but I get a charge from it. To me, it’s a lot like training because you can’t think of the end goal or result you’re trying to achieve. It’s overwhelming. It seems impossible. When you just start chipping away, pretty soon, you’ve amassed a lot.”
A video worth a million words
By 2012, she created her first sports app designed for video analysis in training, and she used it to help her prepare for London. During the process, Acuff realized how “fragmented” training information was. Much of the training data used today was collected from the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
“The progression of technology has been amazing. To go from never really being able to see yourself on video to being able to instantly review what you just did and get that feedback is amazing,” Acuff said. “A picture is worth a thousand words, but a video is worth a million words.”
Acuff is working to “digitize training collateral” and tie it together so athletes and coaches can have benchmarks and analytics to understand what exercises correlate to success in competition.
She’s doing this in a world where professional athletes are still writing their training progress on paper, or worse, not writing it down at all.
“Do they know how they compare to how they were two years ago in all these key performance indicators,” Acuff said. “Where’s their weak link? If they don’t know that, how will they know what’s holding them back? What happens when they’re ‘in the zone’ and everything is working great. That’s a concrete thing. You can quantify it. Imagine if you had a road map to get back to your ‘zone’ instead of trying to guess what put you there.”
Clearing the bar
Acuff came in 20th in London, but her drive to improve both her performance and her app intensified. In 2015, she released iAnalyze (download on iTunes), the ultimate sports video analysis tool that helps anyone from pole vaulters to baseball players.
This wife and mother to two small children has to maximize the time she has for training, so the app is perfect for her.
“My company is all about being smarter with training, and being more efficient,” Acuff said. “I don’t train the way I used to when I was younger. I can’t tolerate the frequency and the load the way I used to.”
She has received positive feedback from athletes and coaches who have used iAnalyze as she continues to reap the benefits as well.
With a goal of clearing new heights in order to reach the podium, who’s to say the sixth time isn’t the charm?
“Water is the strongest thing on earth,” Acuff said. “It’s not a big hammer or a piece of iron. It’s water because it’s persistent and flexible, and over time, it can erode the strongest granite. That’s a great visual for persistence. If you just keep coming at something over time, you’re going to conquer it with tiny chips.”
That’s the pace that Acuff thrives on whether on the track or in the coding chair, and one where she can enjoy the view on the oh-so-familiar way up.