HELPING FIGURE SKATERS BY LEAPS, BOUNDS Hopkins student's computer project catches interest of U.S. Olympic coaches


Peter Zapalo, a 20-year-old Johns Hopkins junior, will audition for the nation's top figure skating coaches in Colorado this weekend. But he won't need a flawless triple Lutz or a dazzling double axel.

He'll just plug in his Apple computer, tap a few keys and let skaters leap across the screen.

As a class project, Mr. Zapalo wrote a computer program that, by analyzing video clips of skaters in action, automatically calculates the speed, height and rate of rotation of a spinning leap. The program lets novice skaters compete, toe-to-toe on a computer screen, against some of the sport's elite.

Word of its existence triggered a flurry of phone calls from intrigued coaches and an invitation to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he'll demonstrate his program today and tomorrow to the board of the Professional Skaters Guild of America.

Computers already help golfers, baseball players, swimmers and other athletes improve their swings and strokes. To perfect their jumps, Olympic-level skaters in the United States have been using a sophisticated program installed on a computer at the Colorado Springs center. But that system, some skaters and coaches say, is expensive and cumbersome.

"At Colorado Springs, they tape you against a grid in the background, and you must jump in front of the grid," said Derrick Delmore, a friend of the inventor and winner of the U.S. Olympic Festival Men's Figure Skating Championship on July 3.

"With Peter's program, you can do your jump anywhere on the ice, as long as it's in the right amount of light," he explained. "The program uses physics formulas to calculate the actual height of your jump."

The program, which runs on a desktop Macintosh computer, can calculate movements from a single video clip. Mr. Zapalo merely skates out onto the ice clutching an 8-millimeter video camera, then shoots the athlete taking off and landing. Later he converts the tape into digital images, using an off-the-shelf program, and installs those images into his own program.

"The simplicity of it is really quite wonderful," said Shirley Hughes, a skating coach from Davidsonville.

Mr. Zapalo, whose parents live in Brandywine, says he wrote it out of a fan's love for the sport.

The software earned Mr. Zapalo an "A" in a class taught by Harry R. Goldberg, a professor in Hopkins' Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute. By coincidence, Mr. Goldberg's daughter, Ingrid, 11, is one of the Baltimore region's top young skaters.

Ingrid said the program has helped hone her leaps.

"If my jump goes wrong, the computer will help me figure out what's wrong with it, because I can see it frame by frame," she said, lacing up her skates at the Northwest Family Sports Center Ice Rink.

In his class last year, Mr. Goldberg asked students to write a piece of software that might have some real-world application.

In early June, Mr. Zapalo brought his camera and computer to a skating clinic staged by Ms. Hughes at a rink in Alexandria, Va.

About 18 skaters showed up.

"The parents were going crazy," Mr. Zapalo recalled. "They'd watched their kids fall 1,000 times out there. Now they'd see what was going on. The kids were really responding and elated to be next to an elite skater on the computer screen. They thought that was really cool."

Mr. Zapalo couldn't afford to pay an established champion skater, such as Nancy Kerrigan, for permission to use video clips of her for comparison in his program. So he scouted around and found young, talented skaters who would agree to let him tape them in exchange for an analysis of their jumps.

The nationally ranked skaters he uses as his "elite" corps include Tara Lipinski, 12, who is from Texas; Crissha Gossard, 16, of Delaware; Braden Overette, 12, of Colorado; and Mr. Delmore. After Mr. Zapalo taped them, Mr. Delmore and Ms. Lipinski went on to win gold medals at the Olympic Festival, and Ms. Gossard won a bronze medal.

So far, Mr. Zapalo said, his program hasn't spotted any diamonds in the rough.

He noted that Josiah Modes, a 17-year-old in Florida, jumps higher than anyone else he has analyzed. However, he said the little-known skater still needs work on his technique.

All the interest in his software has been a mixed blessing for Mr. Zapalo, a biology major entering his last full year of college before he applies to medical school. "I really need to get my GPA [grade-point average] up higher," he said.

His mother, Mr. Zapalo said, "is really leery" about the project interfering with his studies. His father, on the other hand, "is really gung-ho" about the possibility of turning the program into a commercial product.

Describing himself as relatively "sedentary," Mr. Zapalo doesn't claim to be athletic. When he launches himself onto the ice with his camera, he prays he doesn't fall.

That happened once, while he was taping Ms. Gossard.

"I have bad feet, on top of everything else," he sighed. "I wasn't meant for skating."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad