The best Olympic sport for your body type

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The Seven Most Obscure Sports at the Rio Olympics

Nature or nurture?

From the minute one of his young athletes took her first few strides, Pete Sherry sensed she would be a star. "She had a little different spring in her step, she was muscular for her age, she was very efficient," recalls Sherry, a professional runner-turned-massage therapist who now coaches high school track and cross country in the District of Columbia area. He was right: The girl went on to become a state champion. While there's no question that athletes must work hard to get to the top, natural features can give them a leg up in various sports. "Some of that you just can't teach," Sherry says. Here are seven examples:

Table tennis

If the closest you've come to playing table tennis is competing in a college party knockoff, you can't be blamed for assuming the activity is more about precision than fitness. But don't be fooled: "Table tennis players are very fit" and probably train like sprinters, Sherry says, since the sport requires them to be incredibly quick on their feet. The three men on Team USA's table tennis team, for instance, range in height from 5 feet 5 inches to 6 feet 1 inch, but all have lean figures with normal-to-low body mass indexes. "Fitness is important in any sport," Sherry says. "It prevents injuries, it keeps you healthy, it keeps your weight down."

Weightlifting

While nutrition and fitness shape the body, those factors have their limits. In a sport like weightlifting, for instance, genetics and muscle fiber types can make or break a star, says Felicia Stoler, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian in Red Bank, New Jersey. "Stockier people, because of their muscle mass, are better with more of the strength-type sports," she says, although it's possible to work past that, she adds. Naturally lean athletes who are required to bulk up, on the other hand, "may just tap out and still look like a string bean," Stoler says.

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Best photos from the 2016 summer Olympics
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07: Simone Biles of the United States competes on the balance beam during Women's qualification for Artistic Gymnastics on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07: Jonas Valanciunas of Lithuania shoots over Marcus Vinicius Marquinhos of Brazil during a Men's preliminary round basketball game between Brazil and Lithuania on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07: Segun Toriola of Nigeria plays a Men's Singles second round match against Koki Niwa of Japan on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 3 on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 06: Bret Bonanni #10 of United States shoots the ball against Croatia during the Men's Water Polo Preliminary Round - Group B match between the United States of America and Croatia at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on August 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Anna Marton of Hungary, right, fences against Manon Brunet of France during women's saber individual fencing competition in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Russia's Middle Khamukov Petr is punched by Venezuela's Albert Ramon Ramirez during a men's light heavyweight 81-kg preliminary boxing match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Hungary's Katinka Hosszu competes in a women's 100-meter backstroke heat during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07: Laura Giombini of Italy (R) reacts during the Women's Beach Volleyball preliminary round Pool D match against Jamie Lynn Broder and Kristina Valjas of Canada on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Beach Volleyball Arena on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07: Robert Gardos of Austria plays a Men's Singles second round match against Ovidiu Ionescu of Romania on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 3 on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07: Shu-Ching Hsu of Chinese Taipei competes during the Women's 53kg Group A weightlifting contest on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 2 on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Italy's Pietro Zucchetti, left, and teammate Ruggero Tita attend a training session of the 49er Men event during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Argentina's Federico Pizarro tries to score a penalty during the men's preliminary handball match between Denmark and Argentina at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Belgium's Laura Waem performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's qualification at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
2016 Rio Olympics - Beach Volleyball - Women's Preliminary - Beach Volleyball Arena - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 07/08/2016. Doaa Elghobashy (EGY) of Egypt and Kira Walkenhorst (GER) of Germany compete. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 08: Lilly King of the United States celebrates winning gold in the Women's 100m Breaststroke Final on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
France's Rudy Gobert, right, fights for a rebound with China's Zhou Qi (15) and Yi Jianlian, rear, during a basketball game at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
United States' Katie Ledecky competes in a semifinal of the women's 200-meter freestyle during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Norway's Sanna Solberg tries to score past Spain's goalkeeper Darly Zoqbi during the women's preliminary handball match between Spain and Norway at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09: Michael Phelps (L) of the United States leads Chad le Clos of South Africa in the Men's 200m Butterfly Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09: Simone Biles of the United States competes on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Team Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Russia's Ekaterina Birlova casts a shadow on the sand as she serves to Poland during a women's beach volleyball match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Germany's Karin Schnaase stretches during a badminton training session at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09: Ruolin Chen and Huixia Liu of China compete in the Women's Diving Synchronised 10m Platform Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10: Ning Ding of China in action during the Womens Table Tennis Singles Final match against Li Xiaoxia of China at Rio Centro onn August 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10: Axel Augis of France competes on the horizontal bar during the Men's Individual All-Around final on Day 5 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Members of team Cuba attempt to block a ball spiked by Iran's H. Milad Ebadipour Ghara during a men's preliminary volleyball match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
France's Lauren Rembi reacts after losing to Russia in a women's epee team fencing quarterfinal competition at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14: Linda Cerruti and Costanza Ferro of Italy compete in the Women's Duets Synchronised Swimming Free Routine Preliminary Round on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 13: Jennifer Oeser of Germany competes in the Women's Heptathlon Long Jump on Day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 12: Matthew Glaetzer of Australia competes in the Men's Sprint Qualifying on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Velodrome on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 14: Usain Bolt of Jamaica competes in the Men's 100 meter semifinal on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 12: An RS-X athlete is seen on the way back to the marina after the conclusion of racing on Day 7 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Marina da Gloria on August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
United States' Gabrielle Douglas performs on the uneven bars during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Bahamas' Shaunae Miller, left, beats United States' Allyson Felix, second right, to win the women's 400-meter final during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Athletes compete in a men's 400-meter hurdles semifinal during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Russia's Darya Klishina makes an attempt in the women's long jump qualification during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17: Silver medalist Nia Ali (L) and gold medalist Brianna Rollins of the United States celebrate after the Women's 100m Hurdles Final on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Canada's Andre De Grasse, left, and Jamaica's Usain Bolt smile at each other in a men's 200-meter semifinal, during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 20: Russia compete during the ribbon rotation 1 in the group all-round qualification round at the at Rio Olympic Arena on August 20, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 19: The riders compete during the Men's semi final 2 on day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic BMX Centre on August 19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 19: Yauheni Karaliou of Belarus competes during the Diving Men's 10m Platform Preliminary on Day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on August 19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Taekwondo

Tall people typically excel at basketball or volleyball, broad-shouldered folks tend to be advantaged in the pool and lanky, non-muscular types often do well at distance running. But such generalities can't be made for sports with various weight classes like taekwondo or boxing, says Marko Damiani, a former professional taekwondo competitor who now trains athletes and others at DavidBartonGym Century City in Los Angeles. "Fighters, you can't really tell." He chose the sport in part because it suited his competitive nature, which favors individual events over team activities. "You need to choose a sport you like," Damiani says. "You need to enjoy it."

Track and field: marathon

At 5 feet 7 inches, Teal Burrell was too tall for gymnastics and too short for basketball. So, she took up running, which the Olympic trials marathon competitor credits for her strong legs. Still, elite distance runners often have a certain physique – one that's not too tall or heavy, Burrell says, since smaller bodies generate less heat. Women may also be advantaged in endurance events, Stoler says, since they tend to store more body fat than men. And the idea that long legs give runners an advantage? Not necessarily so, since lanky limbs can weigh athletes down, says Shawn Arent, director of the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health at Rutgers University.

Track and field: pole vault

Arent, who's also an associate professor of exercise science and sports studies at Rutgers University, often gives students the same advice: "If you want to be an elite athlete, pick your parents well," he says. Sherry, the track and cross country coach who owns Virginia-based Sherry Therapy, also finds that some people appear to be crafted to participate in specific events. He coached one pole vaulter who could jump 17 feet, for instance, who was tall, thin, broad-shouldered and able to put on muscle. "You see that kid and you're like, 'pole vaulter.'" Such advantageous features, Arent adds, are well-tracked by recruiters. "They're basically trying to chase the prototype," he says.

Rowing

While successful rowers must have strong upper and lower bodies, there's no one ideal size, Arent says. Members of the U.S. women's rowing team, for instance, range in weight from 110 to 190 pounds, and in height from 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 3 inches. Like soccer, he says, "anybody could do this and it just so happens there's a sport that fits multiple body types." That's important for regular folks to keep in mind when they're looking for a new activity, since it's easy to find Masters rowing and other clubs in many cities, says Sherry, who took up kayaking later in life. "I like being on the water," he says.

Track and field: decathlon

Some people are naturally quick, others are born to tackle and others still are the "hybrid" type who seem to excel at it all, Arent says. For them, an event like the decathlon is a good match. "You don't usually find the ones that excel at distance to be the best thrower," so the top finishers are usually the ones who find the best balance, he says. To find your best match, consider what type of activities you enjoyed or excelled at as a kid, explore what's available in your area and think about how they match your personality. "Nobody," Stoler says, "should feel restricted by their body types."


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