With exclusive access in 2014, Kurt Brungardt gives an inside look at how Victoria Azarenka spent her off-season with two important members of her team—one of which being Brungardt's older brother—to get back on the track to title contention.
Dressed in Nike shorts, T-shirt and basketball shoes, Victoria Azarenka goes through a series of explosive and dynamic movements on force plates, her loose ponytail whipping in all directions. It looks like she’s making a Gatorade commercial as 10 high-speed cameras capture a 360-degree view of her every move. What stands out are the little reflective sensors attached to her body. This up-close assessment isn’t taking place on a sound stage; it’s being done at the P3 Performance Center in Santa Barbara, Calif.
In the span of two years starting in 2012, Azarenka won the Australian Open twice, held the No. 1 spot for 51 weeks and won two medals at the London Olympics (bronze in singles, gold in mixed doubles). But after a series of foot and knee injuries cut her 2014 season short, she began 2015 nearly outside of the Top 50. During her extended off-season, Azarenka invested time and resources into getting healthier and stronger so that her body could withstand the demands of a long, grueling season. To achieve these goals, she consulted with her longtime physiotherapist, osteopath Fabrice Gautier, to hire a new strength and conditioning coach, Mike Brungardt (left, in photo), and enlisted the services of a sports scientist, Dr. Marcus Elliott (right).
For Azarenka—and every top player—the season’s success depends on staying healthy. During the Australian Open, in which she reached the round of 16 unseeded, she didn’t shy away from admitting that she spent part of 2014 depressed. Injury setbacks combined with a break-up (she dated Redfoo, the lead singer of LMFAO, for two years) put her in a dark place. For Azarenka, 2015 has not been about a comeback story but a part of her evolution as a champion.
The Crystal Ball of Sports Science
P3's sensor-filled testing method, created to unravel the mysteries of current injuries and help prevent future injuries, was the brainchild of the center's founder, Elliott. Azarenka came to P3 to resolve her injury quagmire, which included neuroma and plantar fasciitis. The battery of tests she’s taking have made Elliott’s center a destination spot for both professional athletes and sports teams. The microanalysis collects thousands of data points to map an athlete’s movement patterns, creating “a movement fingerprint.” Elliott's process picked up speed in 2005 when he founded the P3 Performance Center.
Elliott’s very first subject as a trainer was his little sister. As a 12-year-old, he designed workouts for her to do on their family ranch. “I’d create little circuit programs,” he explains. “Things like: jump in the pool, touch the bottom 10 times, run around the walnut tree five times, do 25 jumping jacks, then push ups.”
Elliott excelled in three sports, but dreamed of being a wide receiver in football. At 17 his dream was cut short by a catastrophic knee injury, which ignited his passion for a career in science and led him all the way to Harvard Medical School.
Now at P3, Elliott’s academic discipline is biomechanics, or the study of human movement. The software converts movements into animation, a Pixar-like transformation, showing athletes as if they were literally skeletons. Elliott can flag movement dysfunctions that greatly increase an athlete’s risk of injury. “I can point to [the screen],” he says, “and say, ‘Look, you see where his lower tibia is in relation to his upper tibia, that’s not good for the middle, this point right here. That’s where his stress fracture is, right at that point. That’s what the math tells us.’ I can go over to the athlete and put my finger right on that spot on his tibia and that’s where it’s going to hurt. The athlete will wince.”
This is the predictive knowledge that Elliot desires, like a crystal ball of sports science. The idea of making predictions causes some skeptics to roll their eyes, but the goal of science and its game-changing impact on the world has always been its ability to predict outcomes.
The small reflective sensors, placed on every joint of Azarenka’s lower body, sternum and fourth vertebrae, shimmer as she readies for the tests. She begins her first test on the force plates with the one-off lateral skater. Set in an athletic position, like she’s waiting to return a tennis ball but with one foot on the force plate, she explodes hard to the right, and repeats. Her next test includes a reactive element, and then she moves on to the vertical jump.
Elliott observes Azarenka going through the tests and explains, “It’s all about getting more information, information that is also useful for our goals of improving performance and predicting injury. This leads to better decision making for the athlete.” He focuses back on Azarenka as she completes her last three tests: A squat jump (a test of lower-body strength), a drop box and jump (to test muscle elasticity), and a medicine ball rotation throw (to test upper body and core strength).
After Azarenka finishes, everyone circles around the computer to get a look at the data. In a single view, the high-speed video capture is integrated with the information from the force plates. Azarenka’s team is able to see how she’s applying force in her movements. In a vertical jump, they look to see if she is pushing off both legs equally, or if there is an imbalance. Elliott will crunch these numbers through his database to identify areas of concern. Gautier and Brungardt will analyze the information and integrate it into Azarenka’s training program back at her home gym, The Yard, in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
Inside the Gym
Azarenka first arrived at The Yard with two cups of special coffee in travel mugs. It’s no ordinary coffee; it’s Bulletproof coffee (which is traditionally made of butter, MCT oil and coffee). She always makes one for herself and one for Brungardt. When she hands it to him she says, “I bring it for him because he’s old and needs all the help he can get. This way he can kill me with a clear mind.”
For 17 years Brungardt was the strength and conditioning coach for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. Gautier once worked with Spurs point guard Tony Parker, and he collaborated with Brungardt during this time. Now they’re back together again, working with another star European athlete. Brungardt, now 60, has been involved in sports for 45 years and has settled in as Azarenka’s traveling fitness coach.
After a hard workout sequence including cleans, squats, deadlifts and skater jumps with the help of a TRX (a suspension training device), Azarenka is exhausted, but riding a workout high. She turns to Brungardt and says, “That was a butt load.”
“It was literally a butt load,” he agrees. Her non-technical, half-joking description of her workout accurately describes one of the major objectives of her off-season training program. The bull’s eye of Azarenka’s workout prescription is exactly where she needs it in the trenches of the gym: Her posterior chain. Her routine includes the clean, which is part of a classic strength training program that usually includes deadlifts and squats. These moves are staples in most NFL and NBA weight rooms.
Sometimes Azarenka lets out a curse after a particularly hard set. She’s bonded with Brungardt because she’s found a cursing soulmate. Both of them have a way of being poetically profane, and they even have philosophical discussions on cursing. To them, cursing should be used as a pep talk, a therapeutic release as opposed to repression; one should curse respectfully, not to attack, disrespect others or belittle one’s self. It’s a celebration, like a pat on the back after crushing a forehand, or completing a personal best lift in the gym.
That's not the controversial part of Azarenka’s training program, it's the Olympic lifts she's doing. Some coaches and athletes feel like these lifts can cause a serious injury. Brungardt disagrees and has made these lifts the centerpiece of Azarenka’s training program. “There’s nothing inherently dangerous about the lifts, if you do them right,” he says. “And we always stress technique. They’ll actually make her joints more durable and injury resistant, if you build up slowly, fully adapting in each training cycle. The risk benefit ratio is clearly on the side of the Olympic lifts.”
Azarenka hadn’t done Olympic lifts before, so she’s had to focus on technique because the lifts are technically challenging. “She learned the lifts quickly,” Brungardt says. “Tennis players are technique and movement-oriented, so she gets the athleticism of doing a clean and a snatch. She picked it up quicker than a lot of other athletes I’ve worked with.”
Brungardt's philosophy is that Olympic lifts are essential for strength and power development because they train all elements of athletic performance and exercise the entire body as a unit. Azarenka needs to improve the efficiency of her movements in both triple flexion and triple extension, meaning she needs to optimize her ability to load (flexion) and explode (extension). This is exactly why Brungardt likes Olympic lifts; they’re all about loading and exploding.
From Azarenka’s point of view, she likes Olympic lifts because they’re not boring. “The Olympic lifts have been my biggest change,” she says. “I’ve never done anything like it. To learn the proper technique, the flow of the lifts and really understand the fundamentals has been educational. I really like it. It’s been fascinating to challenge myself with the weights this way. It’s a competition: Me against the weight.”
The Road Ahead
So far in 2015, Azarenka has proven that she is healthy again and can compete with (and beat) the top players. Shortly after the Australian Open, she defeated Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams back-to-back in Doha. But she knows her year will not be decided in the first few months. She could win Wimbledon or the U.S. Open for the first time; she could fight her way back into the Top 20, carving out a successful season and setting the stage for 2016; she could be forced to deal with other unforeseen challenges.
Either way, the former No. 1 looks toward the bright side of working her way back up to the top. “Every morning I try to wake up with a big smile on my face to start a good day,” she says. “Then I take a little time to do my own things, to focus my energy and attention, to see what I can do to improve, get a little better everyday and push forward to a place I’ve never been before.”