Grad’s pitch for sport science helps Blue Jays

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Clare Padmore, PhD'20, is putting her degree in biomechanics engineering to use in helping improve ballplayers' performance in the Blue Jays' organization.

When the Toronto Blue Jays made it to the playoffs this year, Clare Padmore celebrated with them as more than a fan. And when they aim for even greater heights next season, Padmore hopes to share in their success too: not as an athlete, coach or front-office executive but as an engineer working to help ballplayers achieve their athletic potential.

Padmore graduates this fall with her PhD in biomechanics and biomechanical engineering and joins a community of more than 315,000 Western alumni worldwide.

Padmore has a science degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where she had a full athletic scholarship and was a standout forward with the women’s hockey team. Although a series of concussions ended her playing career, “being injured gives a different perspective on how the body works,” she noted.

Her interest in the science of athletic performance led her to Western, and to conversations with Bone & Joint Institute professor Jim Johnson, a researcher in biomechanics, bioengineering and orthopedic surgical devices and implants.

That experience, and a tour through St. Joseph’s Health Care London’s Roth McFarlane Hand and Upper Limb Centre sealed her intention to study and work at Western.

It was a rewarding five-year journey – and a tough slog. “I think that everyone who goes through a PhD goes through that. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”

About a year ago, Padmore applied for a high performance fellowship with the Toronto Blue Jays and began her work in March, just as the pandemic began and just as professional sports teams were trying to sort out how they would approach the season.

Her job has included helping build and outfit a sport science lab in Dunedin, Fla., home of the Class A-Advanced Blue Jays minor league affiliate team. That new biomechanics lab should be ready within a few months and will offer state-of-the-art analysis.

The specifics of what Padmore does are proprietary – discussing details would be like sharing signals with an opposing team – and are intended to help athletes safely get the most from their bodies.  “We’re trying to improve players from a sport science end, while also trying to prevent injury.”

The work also includes player development: helping athletes in the minors develop the skills they need to become not just solid bench players for the big team, but the next starting-lineup standouts.

“It’s really great to get to collaborate with the coaching staff,” Padmore said. “They come to us with really interesting questions and we tell them what we can see.”

And the speed of it all – from question to expected solution – comes at Padmore and her colleagues like a fastball from the mound. “It’s definitely a very fast-paced environment but that’s also what makes it interesting.”

An athlete herself, she understands that players want to perform better and more consistently in every outing, and also that teams expect a return on their investment. That means applying sport science in the workout room as well as on the field.

Just as other types of athletes are pushing their limits and expanding the definitions of peak performance – Padmore cited runner Eliud Kipchoge’s bursting through the 2-hour marathon mark a year ago, a feat previously believed to be impossible – an increasing number of pro sports teams are turning to science and engineering to help their athletes succeed.

“We’re doing some pretty cool stuff – I think we’ve taken great strides this season,” Padmore said.

The Jays were in a rebuilding year, and few had expected them to make the playoffs. But a combination of skill, the right people at the right time and the abbreviated and reworked schedule saw them finish third in the American League East division and face Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of playoffs. (Tampa Bay is now battling the Los Angeles Dodgers for the World Series.)

While she hopes she will be part of next year’s successes, Padmore believes she is already making a difference and has contributed to the team’s competitive advantage.