The sports gene, Truckee-Tahoe variant
March 25, 2014
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — I am sure you recall how the Tahoe region Olympians earned more medals than many nations in Sochi. Add to that the national championships earned just recently: Peter Holmes of North Tahoe High School won two gold medals in the USSA Nordic Junior Nationals held in Stowe, Vt., while Mark Engel of Truckee won the NCAA title in Giant Slalom, skiing for University of Utah.
If you are in the mood for a healthy dose of regional pride, often you need to look no further than the Sierra Sun sports page, especially during the winter.
The sports gene seems to be alive and well in our little mountain paradise. Or perhaps it's the mountain environment itself that plays a major role in shaping national and world champions.
A recent addition to the collection at the Truckee Library attempts to shed some light on the age-old nurture versus nature conundrum, "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance" by David Epstein.
Epstein shares the latest of modern genetic research as it relates to elite athleticism. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor's training environment affects athleticism.
Epstein lays out the debate that is as old as physical competition: Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports?
Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training?
Beyond that, Epstein also attempts to answer questions such as is the 10,000 hours of rigorous training from a young age the only route to athletic excellence?
He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball batter are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete's will to train, might have genetic components as well.
Of special interest to us in Truckee/Tahoe region is Epstein's chapter on altitude entitled "The World's Greatest Accidental (Altitudinous) Talent Sieve."
While he focuses primarily on Kenyan distance runners, the basic biology is universally applicable. When compared to their sea-level counterparts, altitude natives who grow up at elevation tend to have proportionally larger lung surface, which is better for diffusing oxygen in the blood.
As Epstein explains, "A helpful combination, perhaps, is to have sea-level ancestry — so that hemoglobin can elevate quickly upon training at altitude — but to be born at altitude, in order to develop larger lung surface area, and then to live and train in the sweet spot."
And what is the sweet spot in terms of elevation?
It is around 6,000 to 9,000 feet, high enough to cause physiological changes, but not so high that the air is too thin for hard training. Score one for high-altitude living.
Of course, it is much more complicated than mere geography. There are no easy answers or blanket generalizations to be made. However, one clear take-away from the book is that both genes and environment alchemize to create an elite athlete.
Congratulations to all our local Olympians and national champions!
Teri Andrews Rinne is the children's services librarian at the Truckee Library, 10031 Levon Ave. Call 530-582-7846 or visit http://www.mynevadacounty.com/library.