Game on -A play-by-play breakdown of a lab where UF athletes are always No. 1

The rising star of the Gator baseball team, freshman pitcher Travis Lawler, stands on the other side of an observation window with quarter-sized reflective markers stuck to his arms, legs and torso. As Lawler raises a baseball to his chest and prepares to hurl an 80 mph fastball across the length of the room, red strobe lights fire at lightning speed, gleaming off the markers on his body.

Lawler, like most elite athletes, lives his life at the brink of physical devastation. But if you asked him about it, he'd beg to differ.

What Lawler would agree on - the thing he has in common with some of baseball's fastest pitchers and hardest hitters, think New York Yankees stars Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez - is his uncanny ability to breach the corporal barriers that constrain most people. Each pitch generates enough force to snap the tendons in an average person's shoulder like brittle twigs crunching under a hiker's heavy foot.

But however invincible these champions appear on the outside, their fates are, in fact, delicately balanced above a pivotal point where one false move - a single bad throw or a lapse in mechanics - could send them careening down the scale toward irreparable injury.

"To perform at that level, they've always got to be right at the edge of damage," says Bryan Conrad, M.S., a biomedical engineer who has worked with UF's Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Laboratory since it was built three years ago. "So obviously they train for that and develop physically to accommodate those stresses, but over time the microdamage can accumulate.

That's why Gainesville is the place to be if you're an athlete. The College of Medicine's motion analysis laboratory at UF's Orthopeadics and Sports Medicine Institute is one of only two facilities in the nation that can analyze the mechanics of your baseball pitch, golf swing, volleyball spike or football pass in minute detail and send you away stronger, faster ''¦ and smarter, with a new set of performance-enhancing skills that evaluate - and minimize - your potential for serious injury. Even UF's own "Superman" quarterback Tim Tebow visited the lab this summer to work on his passing technique. The motion analysis lab got to the bottom of Tebow's mysterious shoulder soreness and sent him away with a few pointers for improving his throw.

Sports-related injuries sideline more than just professional and collegiate athletes, though. Nearly 40 million kids and young adults play team sports and about a tenth of them suffer recreation-related injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As Americans become more active, data gathered in labs like UF's could help the backyard quarterback as much as it helps UF athletes now.

"This is state-of-the-art technology. It's what the best use and Gators are the best, so this is it," says John Barrett, M.S., head athletic trainer for the UF baseball team and a clinical instructor of athletic training in the College of Health and Human Performance. "There's so much they can do, preventive-wise. The data is so helpful. You strive to have injury-free seasons, because that's what helps you win."

How does it work?

The entire scene - the pitch, the lights, the athlete in motion - is captured by a network of high-speed cameras and transmitted back to a Dell computer, where Lawler appears as a 3-D bionic man, throwing a ball on a gridlike field.

"This is the same system people are using for animations, like Toy Story 2," says Nigel Zheng, Ph.D., adjusting various controls on his keyboard that bring the bionic man to life on his flat-panel monitor. "We're using the same technology to analyze human motion."

Zheng, director of the motion analysis laboratory and an assistant professor of orthopaedics and rehabilitation in the College of Medicine, isn't the first scientist to measure the velocity of bones and joints under the skin using biomechanical analysis, the technical term for his impressive array of strobe lights, cameras and reflective markers.

But he is an innovator in the science of sports motion: Zheng was one of the first to develop a series of computer programs that compares detailed analyses of the mechanics of professional and novice athletes to reveal how a baseball pitch, for example, could be tweaked to enhance performance.

Zheng's current work with Lawler and several other Gator baseball pitchers is part of a collaboration with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that was recently funded by Major League Baseball.

"Basically, these are the professionals - this is what they are doing," he says, paging through a report filled with algorithms, models and 3-D images of baseball pitchers in various stages of motion. "We break down those biomechanical variables into sections like the arm-cocking phase and the acceleration phase, based on where your arms are positioned."

It's simple: Professional athletes provide the baseline for near-perfect technique, while everyone else tries to measure up. Things like the motion and angle of an athlete's spine, the exact degree of each shoulder and hip rotation and the velocity of each bone are analyzed in minute detail to identify areas for improvement.

For example, Tebow's analysis revealed he relies too much on his shoulder to throw the ball and not enough on his hips. The solution? Rotate his hips earlier, which Conrad says will generate more power and give Tebow's shoulder a much-needed rest.

Because performance enhancement and injury prevention go hand in hand, UF's motion analysis lab provides Gator athletes with an advantage over most other college teams by identifying the potential for serious injuries before they occur.

"We do research to understand injury mechanisms," Zheng says. "We would like to be able to prehab before an injury so we can say, 'OK. You're about to break your tendon. Let's do something to make this stronger."

In many cases, the news comes as little surprise. Athletes occasionally feel warning signs of a serious injury before throwing the final ball that breaks the camel's back.

Lawler, who's still pitching on the other side of the observation window, seems skeptical about the tightrope Conrad claims he's walking between fame and early retirement.

"If you know what you're doing, then it's not necessarily one pitch," Lawler says, grappling with the idea of being a fastball away from disaster. "Sometimes it's a constant pain, but it feels like you can deal with it. And then all of a sudden there's just one big pop."

But how can a computer algorithm predict what an athlete only suspects?

"Obviously we can't rotate a patient's knee until something breaks, just to measure the strength of his knee joint flexibility," explains Conrad.

That's where the cadavers come in.

Zheng and Conrad study the anatomy of cadavers to develop 3-D models of human bones and determine how contact between bones and joints influences recovery after sports injuries, such as a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

"We actually put the ligaments on a machine and apply the forces to see what the ultimate strength is," Conrad says "Then we can say, 'Okay, the actual patient is well under that threshold.' "

Coping with curve balls

Despite the warning signs, most athletes aren't lucky enough to catch a potential injury before it's too late. Virtually all athletes will experience a physical setback at some point in their careers.

"The most common serious injury we see is a ligament injury to the knee, an ACL injury," says Peter Indelicato, M.D., head team physician for the UF Athletic Association and division chief of sports medicine in the College of Medicine.

"How somebody moves in space - where their head is in relationship to their shoulders, their shoulders in relation to their hips, their hips in relation to their knees, their feet in relation to their hips - may be a factor in why one person tears their ACL doing an activity and somebody else doesn't," Indelicato says.

Football players suffer more ACL injuries than other athletes, but these setbacks are nowhere near as frightening as the prospect of a spinal injury that could cause life-long paralysis.

On Sept. 9, during the first NFL game of the season, Buffalo Bills player Kevin Everett suffered what doctors deemed a life-threatening spinal injury. Doctors thought his chances of walking again would be slim, but because they used an experimental cooling technique, he is making what experts consider a miraculous recovery. But other players haven't been so lucky. Since 1978, five other NFL players have suffered similar injuries, some faring better than others.

As it turns out, spinal injuries aren't over after the initial collision between two players. An injured player is still at risk for more damage afterward, and the most dangerous part is often simply moving the athlete to a spine board to the ambulance and finally to the operating table.

An ongoing project at the motion lab mimics the entire process in cadavers, injury and all, to identify potentially risky maneuvers.

"We have a team of athletic trainers, EMTs and orthopedic surgeons - the types of people who would be on the football field when they transport an injured player onto the spine board, into the ambulance and into the hospital," Conrad says.

After inducing a spinal cord injury in a corpse, the team attaches GPS-like sensors to various bones and tries to pinpoint unnecessary movement that could exacerbate an already life-threatening injury. The data will help experts develop new guidelines for moving injured athletes off the field.

Most of the time, Zheng and Conrad focus on routine health maintenance and minor injury prevention, working with athletes such as Lawler and Tebow.

"We've taken athletes like our quarterbacks and analyzed their throwing motion to see if they're heading toward a problem we can prevent," says Indelicato.

Mind over matter?

Improvements to technique don't always translate to more strikeouts and touchdowns, though. At least not right away. While it might seem like working with the motion lab could enhance an athlete's performance simply by boosting confidence, sport psychologist Christopher Janelle, Ph.D., says that's probably not the case.

"You're changing something that is a well-learned habitual behavior," Janelle says. "The whole process of thinking about what you're doing interferes with the ability to do it. You're adding a cognitive element to performance that is typically not there, particularly for elite-level athletes."

Janelle says those psychological barriers eventually can be overcome through repetition, practice and focus, but the time it takes varies among athletes. In most cases, athletes have been performing the same motion since they were only a few years old. The prospect of changing that overnight is daunting and highly successful athletes are not used to failure.

"The hope - the reason that elite-level athletes are willing to take that risk - is because they know there's something that could be better with what they're doing," Janelle says. "There's the recognition that whatever this glitch may be, it has to change for them to maximize their potential. It's hugely courageous for people to do this."

Fountain of youth

The secret to making the big leagues? Start young, Zheng says.

The reason Lawler can hurl a fastball with no problem while the average person might require immediate transport to the emergency room is because athletes who compete at an early age are built for success. Literally.

Lawler, who says he started playing ball as soon as he could walk, is a perfect example. Repeated motion during early development can coax muscles to attach at different locations, expanding the young athletes' ranges of motion.

Baseball pitchers can reach surprisingly far back behind their necks to gain enough momentum to throw a fastball. But the rest of us are better at doing the mirror opposite - pointing our fingers down toward the ground and extending our hands back behind our body.

That just means we're not built for pitching, Zheng says. And no amount of weightlifting or practice can change the attachment locations of muscles after the body has stopped growing.

"You have to realize what you can and cannot do. Some things improve with strength and conditioning, but for some things it's too late," Zheng says. "You never hear of someone going to the U.S. Open without playing tennis before age 10. They all start early. You can't catch up with them."

That doesn't mean elite athletes are immune to physical injury. As Lawler, Tebow and dozens of other Gator athletes have learned at the motion analysis lab, it just means they have to stay vigilant. One careless move could land them on the sidelines for a day. Or for good.

But Lawler says that won't stop him from playing the game.

"I'll play forever, as long as I can," he says. "If I get hurt, I'll go to rehab. Then if I can still play, I'll play."

And if he has to hang it up?

"Then I'll coach, probably."