When a team has won back-to-back gold medals and has a record of 46-0 this season, you might think there's little room for improvement.
The U.S. softball team doesn't see it that way.
Members of the team say they are sharpening their eyesight through a series of exercises that strengthen eye muscles to track the ball better.
"I was skeptical when we started," said slugging third baseman Crystl Bustos. "But it's made a believer out of me."
Seeing a softball thrown at 65 mph from 43 feet away, as the world's top players do, is enough to give anyone eyestrain. The reaction time - a blink-of-an-eye four-tenths of a second - is about the same as what is required of a major leaguer facing a 100 mph fastball thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches.
Playing with a yellow ball with red stitches helps, said Bustos, but it's not enough. Batters also have to adjust to off-speed pitches, rise balls and curves.
To give the team an edge, officials turned to Conditioned Ocular Enhancement training, invented by Chicago doctor Mike Bonaventura in the mid-1990s.
Bustos said an air cannon flings a red or black tennis ball painted with a half-inch-high number toward a batter, who attempts to "speed read" the orb.
At low speeds, she said, it's fairly easy. At higher speeds (the machine is capable of 150 mph) the challenge is calling out the correct color of the ball.
"If you can see the number on a ball thrown at 90 mph, 65 looks lazy. It's all in the conditioning," she said.
COE has been used by the Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies.
Bustos and other players, including pitcher Lisa Fernandez, began the 30-minute drills earlier this year.
"When you're locked in, you can really track the ball from the pitcher's hand to the plate," Fernandez said. "It's really not as hard as it sounds."
Testing the waters
Team Atkins, the three U.S. women competing in the first Yngling competition at the Olympics, is in Athens to practice in the area that will be used for the regatta.
Skipper Carol Cronin of Rhode Island and crew members Liz Filter of Stevensville and Nancy Haberland of Annapolis are learning to cope with the notorious "Meltemi" winds, the strong, hot breeze that carries from the city to the waterfront and creates shifty and puffy conditions.
"Racing in it is a challenge to predict where the next big puff will fill from, and to change gears instantly when it hits," said Cronin. "We have been enjoying the chance to line up with some of our competitors and have been refining our settings to allow for a wide range of wind conditions."
Friday was the first day of the Greek nationals, a four-day regatta that most Olympic teams are using as their final tuneup before the games. Team Atkins is competing against 18 other entries, including Sally Barkow and Carrie Howe, half of the U.S. team that won the ISAF Women's Match Racing World Championship in Annapolis last month.
"We have two weeks to finalize our settings and sails for the Olympics, and we are trying to get the most out of our time here," said Cronin.
The women, who are sponsored by Atkins Nutritionals Inc., will return home in late July for one last session of R-and-R before the games begin.
Cronin said preparations are looking up.
"The new light rail, which connects the various Olympic venues, looks to be ready to go," she said. "Other improvements ... progress daily. Although it seems difficult to believe that all the projects will be completed by the opening ceremonies, the changes we see on our daily commute are impressive."
Games at a glance
When: Aug. 13-29
Where: Athens, Greece