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What makes elite athletes great? the Tsais ask ... and put up $220 million to find out

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, who have provided hundreds of millions in philanthropic gifts to help unlock the potential of the human brain, are now investing in pushing the limits of the human body, hoping to to “transform how people train, heal, and perform throughout their lifespan.”

In other words, what makes elite athletes great ... and how that can be applied to everyone’s lives.

The Tsais, in part because of their familiarity with professional athletes on the Nets and Liberty, have set up and funded the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance to “reverse-engineer” health advances by studying humans at their peak — particularly elite athletes — according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the San Diego Union-Tribune. The Tsais, through the Joe and Clara Wu Tsai Foundation, have earmarked $220 million over the next 10 years to fund the alliance.

The announcement is tied to the opening of the Olympics next week in Tokyo and included a video on the alliance’s goals.

“Science funding is traditionally focused on the study of diseases,” Wu Tsai said in a statement and interviews published by the Chronicle and Union-Tribune.

“We are taking the opposite approach and studying the human body at its healthiest and most vital, to enable the thriving of all people — from an Olympic Gold Medal-level athlete to a grandfather lacking the mobility to enjoy a full life.”

“After robust dialogues and engagement with biologists, engineers, trainers, clinicians, and athletes,” she added. “We decided to focus on defining the scientific principles underlying human performance.”

Stanford will lead the new Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, working with the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), as well as the Salk Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate; the University of Oregon and the University of Kansas, where Wu Tsai’s father was a professor of economics.

Wu Tsai pointed to an explosion of new technologies in medicine that, if combined with studies of high-functioning individuals, could yield advances in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, and other conditions that cause physical disabilities.

She also noted that she and her husband’s exposure to their players’ injuries — which has hurt both the Nets and Liberty — drove some of their interest in human performance.

“When you’re close to these athletes and you see what they’re going through, you start to wonder, ‘How could that have been prevented? What is the right time to return to play? What is the correct kind of healing, including diet, including timing, including sleep?” Wu Tsai told ESPN. “And if it’s not science-based, then it becomes anecdotal and it’s less reliable. I think we want to put that scientific rigor into it so the regimens we put them through can become standard.

“Seeing how devastating these injuries can be for athletes as individuals but also to the team in general, we just felt that this was a role where we should step up.”

Among the initiatives the alliance will fund is Stanford’s “Digital Athlete,” which aims will create computer models to guide training and treatment for athletes and help improve human health for all. The alliance will also aid the “Female Athlete Program” at Boston Children’s Hospital, which is specifically looking at physiological questions important for improving the health and performance of girls and women as well as transgender female athletes.

The Union Tribune also reported that the San Diego Padres of the MLB will have a role in the research through UCSD. The Nets and Liberty will not but ultimately the fruits of the research is likely to help professional athletes as well as the general public, said a Nets insider.

“This is not a Nets philanthropy thing. ... This is a deep-science initiative. We welcome everyone who has an interest in studying healthy bodies and progressing this field to join us,” said Wu Tsai.

The Tsais have already funded neuroscience centers to study the functioning of the mind at their alma maters, Yale for Tsai, Stanford for Wu Tsai. In addition, as the Chronicle reports, the Tsais have been on a “philanthropy streak.” being among a group of business leaders and others who contributed $125 million to help launch the Asian American Foundation following the surge of violence against Asian Americans.

Last year, the Tsais committed $50 million over five years to support social-justice and economic-mobility efforts designed to benefit people of color, particularly in Brooklyn. Before that, Wu Tsai contributed millions to the REFORM Alliance, the Meek Mill-inspired group hoping to better the nation’s parole and probation systems.