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Training for the Winter Olympics in VR is grueling, just ask me

Members of the US ski team, including Lindsey Vonn and Laurenne Ross, have been using virtual reality to help prepare for the Olympics. Here's what it feels like.

Hans Bezard/Agence Zoom / Getty Images

This is by far two of the fastest minutes of my life.

My heart is pounding. My forehead and palms are sweating as I go through the same training exercise the US women's ski team uses to prepare for the Jeongseon ski course, site of the competition for this year's Winter Olympics in South Korea.

"Whoa, whoa! Ahhh, this is much faster than I thought," I scream, while crouching low and bobbing my head from side to side. "Am I going straight? Can I get a little help here? Can anybody hear me?"

Here's the catch: None of this is real.

Instead of being 5,500 miles away in Pyeongchang, where the games opened on Friday, I'm in a virtual reality demo room Wednesday at the Menlo Park, California, offices of VR startup STRIVR. I'm still pumped when I pull off the VR headset. Knees aching, I decide to do it again.

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US Olympic alpine skier Laurenne Ross uses virtual reality as part of training to prepare for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

US Ski and Snowboard Association

Laurenne Ross knows the feeling. The US alpine skier regularly trains using VR. 

It's been almost a year since Ross tore her ACL and the meniscus in her right knee, which should have kept her out of action for about 18 months. Ross would have none of it. Instead, she put herself through a grueling rehab regimen that included hundreds of VR sessions. She made it back to the slopes in nine months. 

The US alpine ski team's embrace of virtual reality underscores how athletes are looking to technology to get an edge. VR, which transports you to a digital world through a special headset, has attracted heavy hitters such as Facebook, Google and Samsung. But everyday consumers -- the ones not aspiring for gold medals -- have been slow to embrace the technology.

With VR, skiers can react to different conditions and deviously designed Olympic courses at 80 miles per hour.

"They hopefully will be much more prepared, and not so distracted and caught up in the moment," said Brian Meek, STRIVR's chief technology officer. "Playing sports is intense. We replicate the intensity."

Ross said VR keeps her mentally sharp.

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"It's so easy to forget some of the tiny details about preparing for a race that can really make a difference," she told me via email while at a World Cup event in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, last month. "VR has been a big part of keeping me focused and ready to return."

The US ski team is the first Olympic squad in the world to use VR technology in training, said Troy Taylor, high performance director of US Ski & Snowboard, who was familiar with STRIVR's work with other sports. More than 20 members of the ski team now use VR, including stars Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin.

The skiers join more than a dozen NFL, NBA and college sports teams that use VR to hone performance. It helps pro and college football quarterbacks, for example, run through and memorize hundreds of plays.

Detroit Pistons' all-star center Andre Drummond, a notoriously bad free throw shooter, increased his success by almost 30 percent this season in part by using STRIVR and a rigorous program with the Pistons' trainer, the team told me.

In 2016, Drummond was tired of being benched during close basketball games because of his inability to hit free throws in the clutch, he said. He's making 61 percent of his free throws this season, a big leap from an anemic 35 percent two years ago.

"These athletes want extra reps to hone their mental decision-making," STRIVR co-founder Jeremy Bailenson said. "We don't ever want to take their time away on the field or on the court."

Ross said she practices in VR as much as three times a week. And, unlike some teammates, Ross said she doesn't suffer from motion sickness.

"It's invaluable because we sometimes have limited time to practice," she said. "It can be the difference between winning and losing." 

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