For swimmers, it's not all about the suits

December, 1, 2011
12/01/11
5:28
PM ET

At the 2009 swimming world championships in Rome, the suits overshadowed the athletes who inhabited them.

Those second skins that incorporated buoyant polyurethane -- simply referred to as "rubber suits" by the swimmers -- could take a half-hour or more to wriggle into, a worthwhile endeavor because they slashed precious seconds from personal bests. World records tumbled. Many in the sport protested, while some contended that technology should be allowed to progress unimpeded.

The many prevailed, and the controversial suits were banned by FINA, swimming's world governing body. Over the past two seasons, the athletes have inched toward the rubber-aided records wearing more conventional "textile" suits, and this year the ultra-talented Ryan Lochte punched through the fabric wall and broke the world record in the 200-meter individual medley.

[+] EnlargeRyan Lochte
Getty ImagesRyan Lochte says any improvements he makes in his races will be by his efforts, not his apparel.

So when eight Americans and one Canadian swimmer stalked onto a runway in Manhattan on Wednesday wearing new Speedo gear that meets the current rules but also comes with the promise of better biomechanical efficiency, it was hard to sort out what that meant. Where is the line between performance-enhancing and performance-optimizing? Will future records forever be linked to fashion eras, with invisible asterisks dotting the archives?

"The only thing I'll say to that is this -- the suit can't swim itself," said three-time world championship medalist Tyler Clary, the individual-medley standout and former swimmer for the Michigan Wolverines. "You still have to put in the training. You still have to have the mental aptitude to put together a race. The suits can't and never will take that away from somebody until you start putting in a living bio-exo-skeleton."

Athletes like Clary are clearly offended by the idea that they are mere passengers on a high-tech train, but they also want to believe they are competing with state-of-the-art apparel. The Speedo Fastskin3 -- debuted around the world Wednesday and billed as a "system" that integrates the design of suit, goggles and cap -- is the latest attempt at achieving that balance.

The woven suit still requires considerable effort to tug on but is made of permeable material that compresses key parts of a swimmer's body to streamline it. Minus the option of full body coverage, now limited by FINA rules, Speedo designers turned their attention to reducing the drag caused by accessories.

The new goggles are said to be more hydro-dynamic and permit peripheral vision, an innovation especially valued by backstrokers, who often have trouble gauging where their competition is because they're facing the sky or the ceiling and are screened by splashing. It will come into play underwater, too. Michael Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, speculated the 16-time Olympic medalist would save valuable fractions of seconds because he won't be tempted to turn his head to look at his rivals when he pushes off the wall on a turn.

Athletes with long tresses stand to benefit from a "hair management system" (and who among us couldn't use that on a given day?) in the form of a tight-fitting, cloth do-rag imprinted with arrows that show how to pack hair into a streamlined bun on the nape of the neck. A slick, thicker cap layers over that.

Natalie Coughlin demonstrated for reporters, dividing her nearly waist-length hair into two hanks which then magically disappeared under the cloth cap. She likened the resulting shape of her head to the tapered helmet worn by cyclists.

"The drag we have in the pool is similar to 60 or 70 mph on land," the 11-time Olympic medalist said. "So if you're driving down the highway and you stick your hand outside, going from having your hand turned flat out to turning your hand just the slightest increment will make the biggest difference. And that's what swimming is about, finding those places where you can shave time."

The swimmers who strutted their stuff Wednesday are all sponsored by Speedo, and several of them have participated in the development and testing process over the past four years. They praised the gear for comfort and its potential contribution to their success, as would be expected. Those compliments could be tested soon; the swimwear is approved for competition starting Jan. 1, and several athletes said they plan to don it for the Austin Grand Prix event later that month.

However, when it comes time for the Olympic trials in late June and the London Olympics a month later, anyone, regardless of sponsorship, will be able to race in the Fastskin3. Speedo president Jim Gerson said the company will provide it on request to any swimmer and he does not anticipate the supply crunch that ensued at the same juncture with the first generation of high-tech suits in 2008.

The bottom line: Once swimmers take their marks, they can't afford to fixate on what they're wearing, negatively or positively. Freestyle sprinter Nathan Adrian said what he most values is feeling that he's not behind when he steps up to the starting blocks.

"I choose to race in the best suit given what the rules are," he said.

Lochte said he thinks he'll break his 200 IM record, but emphasized he wants to correct the infinitesimal mistakes he made in that swim rather than leaning on an advantage conferred by apparel.

"It's the swimmer propelling the suit and not the other way around," Coughlin said firmly. "It's an Olympic year; people are training very well and this is what all of us have dreamt about and focused on, so people are going to be fast, regardless. Give us a baby pool and we'll figure out a way to be fast."

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

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