By any sports standards, Amy Acuff is already one of America’s greatest athletes. She’s been to five Olympic Games, and if she makes her sixth trip to Rio de Janeiro next August, she’ll become the only American track and field athlete ever to do so.
There’s no denying her physical gifts have helped. Possessing an unusual combination of height and explosive strength, she obliterated records and was declared America’s “High School Athlete of the Year” in 1993 by Track and Field News. She followed up with college and national championships and went to her first Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.
Looking more like a towering runway model rather than your typical string–bean high jumper, Acuff also made the most of her looks, working as a model and even appearing on the cover of Playboy.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and in Olympic competition, that’s a lifetime or two ago. But for Acuff, now with two children and into her 40s, nothing has changed. She is still as likely to make the Olympic Team now as she was when she made her first run. To Acuff, it’s simply a case study on how an unrelenting focus on self–improvement, a better diet and more quality and less volume in training can extend performance.
Supreme athletes generally have something that gives them an edge. If you work through the reasons for Acuff’s extraordinary longevity you eventually find what probably gives her this advantage. But let’s start with the mainstays.
Constant improvement of every aspect of one’s life that contributes to performance is a given for champions, and naturally Acuff follows this philosophy.
“I think that wanting to win and beat people is a short-lived motivator,” Acuff tells 24Life. “I think that what has given me that long burn is being motivated by improving myself and learning and growing and trying to find a better way of doing things. So it’s almost an art where you’re just constantly refining and chiselling away, trying to remove the elements that aren’t effective and add in elements that are.”
Focus is the key, she adds. “It’s about repeating those things that work for you over and over, but staying focused and not going through the motions. So you have to be engaged. You can’t be off in La La land listening to music or whatever — you have to be really paying attention to it all.”
Acuff’s improving knowledge of nutrition over the years has definitely contributed to her longevity, she says. She has drastically modified her diet, started avoiding sugar and shifting to a more anti-inflammatory eating plan. “Where I was losing with diet in my younger years — maybe being more inflamed by foods I was eating and abusing sugar — I reigned that in in later years. So if you pit late-30s Amy against early-20s Amy, that’s been an equalizer. Late-30s Amy had the advantage of better diet and better sleep and things like that.”
A major reason Acuff remains competitive with an older body is her shift from long training hours to shorter but high-quality training. It was having her two children that made Acuff discover she could get similar results with less time but more focused training.
“I just have to make it very short and sweet and very focused and intense. I have to be very specific in my training. It doesn’t take a lot of time, fortunately,” she says.
“I also don’t know how I do it,” she laughs. “My kids come with me to the track a lot and they play in the sandpit. It’s kind of neat, I guess. My daughter’s old enough to understand now.”
MAKING HER OWN TOOLS
Just as you find yourself wondering whether Acuff’s longevity is simply the result of diligent and relentless application of bread-and-butter fundamentals of success, you stumble upon the things she does differently.
“One of the keys of my success, my husband tells me this, is my brain and my analytics,” she says casually. Her husband is referring to Acuff’s extraordinary ability to assess her performance, categorize the data and then act on it to keep on improving and negate the effects of aging.
As part of her constant and intense focus on improving her technique, younger Acuff started using various apps to record and analyze her jumping action. She wanted instant feedback, but she could not find any good commercial analysis tools. After the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when she didn’t make the high jump finals, she decided to enroll in a computer programming course.
She was driven by a combination of wanting to expand horizons and seeing if she could improve her technique. “I started writing really simple iOS apps in the beginning and then, as I learned, I advanced to more difficult things. Then I had the bright idea of making my own so that I could record and look at the things I needed as a high jumper.”
The video analysis app she created, iAnalyze, is available now in the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPad. Anyone can download it to help improve their technique. Acuff has a start–up, Winning Edge Apps, which she says “is all about enabling athletes, in this case speed/power sports, to gain that winning edge through technology.”
Her learning to code also coincided with a happy discovery after Beijing.
“In 2009 I got pregnant and I’m like ‘okay, I’m done. I’m going to have a baby and move on.’ Then a certain amount of time after my daughter was born, I was just working out at the gym and I just started doing some of the circuits that I used to do and they only had this 20-pound medicine ball. They didn’t have the smaller ones that I used to use. I thought ‘god, I’m as strong as — I’m doing this with more weight and it’s kind of easy.’” She realized she was practically “doing Russian twists all day with a baby,” putting her daughter in her car seat, bending and twisting.
So Acuff decided to test herself. “At my first meet after two years off with a baby, I jumped Olympic A standard, like 6 feet, 4 3/4 inches, 1.95 meters. Everyone — including myself — was surprised. I was right back to the top level, first meet back. It really gave me a lot of hope.”
Acuff attributes her comeback in part to having the right tools and watching other athletes also compete for longer. “I was talking to the gold medalist in the women’s high jump from 1988,” who told Acuff she wondered if she could have continued, if it weren’t for pressure to get a job and start her life. “She felt a pressure to stop because she was ‘over the hill,’ in her late 20s. But it’s changing now.” Acuff adds, “Fortunately people now are sponsored into their late 30s and they’re performing at a high level, so it’s possible to maintain that lifestyle.”
WAIT TILL YOU SEE VERSION 2.0
Acuff has since developed another five versions of her video analysis app, specific to other sports such as pole vault and hurdling. If you’re looking to analyze your performance or that of a competitor, this is your dream app, created not by a Silicon Valley geek, but by an athlete who knows what’s required. And her next version will include features such as analytics that “enable you to pull any set of variables that you want to look at and trend them over any interval of time, even pulling subjective factors related to sleep and diet.”
But Acuff’s vision goes well beyond. Coming in the future is an app in which she says “you video yourself in a speed/power sport and the app create a 3D model of you.” It will correlate motion, force and other related metrics to the image – and her goal is for it to be ready by the time there’s a camera capable of supporting it.
In five years, Amy Acuff probably won’t be competing anymore. But she’ll be helping other American athletes follow in her footsteps to better and longer lasting sporting success.
“Just like in athletics you look for unifying themes, and in technology I really have this desire to unify technologies for sports so that it becomes part of a singular experience that helps you to improve. I hope I can be the one to deliver that. I’ve got a team of programmers now. It’s not just me.”