In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, Tairia Flowers, starting first baseman for the U.S. women's softball team, has her work cut out for her: Cardio. Sprints. Squats. Weights. Interval training. Strength phases. Explosive phases. Eye conditioning. Eye conditioning?
Mention Ted Williams' hitting, and one of the first things that comes up is his extraordinary eyesight. He could see the seams on a baseball coming toward him at 95 mph and read a record label spinning on a turntable—or so legend has it. The New York Yankees' Jason Giambi has said he recognizes the pitch the moment the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Most hitters, players estimate, pick up the pitch at a distance of 30 feet (distance from mound to plate is 60 feet, 6 inches).
"A lot of people forget that in sports—tennis, softball, baseball—if you're not seeing the ball, you might have the best swing in the world, but you won't be swinging anywhere close to the ball," Flowers, the powerful hitter and 2004 Olympic gold medalist, told ABC News.
So each day, Flowers sits at her laptop and spends two minutes apiece on three exercises; it's part of an assessment and treatment designed for her team by Johnson & Johnson's AchieveVision program, which works with Olympic athletes. Letters flash, shapes pop up and disappear lickety-split, giving her nanoseconds to remember and match them up with other shapes. It's a crucial part of her training: moving quickly, adjusting to change, split-second decision-making, hand-eye coordination.
Flowers is not alone. "As an Olympic athlete, I'm constantly looking to do whatever I can to gain an edge," Vic Wunderle, who will be representing the U.S. in archery this summer, told ABC News. "I spend hours and hours working on my bow and practicing. My bow's important, my arrow's important, my eyesight is just as important."
In recent years, sports vision therapy has grown in popularity.
It may start with souped-up contacts: tinted amber lenses that filter out scattered background light to allow the eyes to track the ball more clearly—Ken Griffey of the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox' A.J. Pierzynski have worn ones from Nike—or prescriptions so precise and powerful athletes wouldn't wear them off the field.
Flowers wears a contact in her right eye when she's playing; she credits her "most consistent" season in part to her improved vision. Heather O'Reilly, star forward for the U.S. women's soccer team, still remembers the day in 7th grade that she started wearing contact lenses on the field. O.K., so it wasn't as exciting as the day— August 23, 2004 — that she scored the game-winning goal against Germany in the Olympics quarterfinal match, but the first undoubtedly made the second possible.
"Wow!" is how she described her reaction to ABC News. "I had been missing out on the spin on the ball. You know the expression, bend it like Beckham? I hadn't been seeing the backspin."
The next step in sports vision therapy may be exercises designed to make your eyes work together better, track balls moving at a gazillion mph, quicken brain response time, gauge depth and distance, improve peripheral vision, switch focus more rapidly. Optometrists use nifty gadgets and gizmos that include beads on strings, prisms, trampolines, balance boards, red lenses, green lenses. Because for an athlete, acing the Snellen chart—that's the one in the doctor's office with the big E at the top—is just the beginning.