Friday, April 4, 2008

Records fall in the water as new suits take off

AP National Writer

When Natalie Coughlin tried to squeeze into her first racing
swimsuit, oh the agony.

“I was crying because it hurt so bad,” said Coughlin, who
captured five medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and five more at
last year’s world championships. “Everyone was just trying to wear
as small a suit as possible.”

Not anymore. Covering up is the thing.

World records don’t stand a chance against the full-body suits
that are spawned in high-tech labs and tested in NASA wind
tunnels. They come with everything but a rocket attached to the back.

Speedo’s new “LZR Racer” already has taken an absurdly huge
chunk out of the record book, less than two months after lavish
debuts around the globe featuring swirling lights, thumping music
and a bevy of swimmers-turned-models.

So far, the Speedo suit has helped set 18 world marks.

Eighteen! More are sure to fall in upcoming qualifying races for
swimmers hoping to make it to the Beijing Olympics.

“It literally feels like you’re a rocket coming off the wall,”
said Michael Phelps, who hopes the LZR will carry him to eight gold
medals in Beijing. “The water just completely runs off the suit.”

There are some who bemoan the latest technological
breakthroughs, who wonder if world-class swimmers are being created
as much in the lab as they are in the pool.

Others say there’s no going back.

“They’re constantly trying to improve on the most current
design,” said Coughlin, who set one of the first records in
Speedo’s new duds. “It never really stops.”

The full-length bodysuits are a far cry from the crude attire
worn by female swimmers in the 1970s, which came with a scooped,
U-shaped back that was so uncomfortable the straps were tied
together with shoestrings. And surely everyone remembers the
increasingly skimpy briefs worn by male swimmers until a decade or
so ago.

“In my day, the game on the men’s side was to see how small a
suit you could wear,” said Steve Furniss, a two-time Olympian and
now executive vice president of California-based swimsuit company
Tyr. “The less, the better. We went around stuffing our little
heinies into those suits. Now, the game is covering up.”

NASA actually had a hand in developing the LZR Racer, which was
unveiled in mid-February.

“We were looking to understand and manage skin friction and the
drag on materials,” said Jason Rance, who heads up Speedo’s
research and development center. “The leaders on that thought are
NASA. They’ve spent a lot of time looking for ways to reduce the
drag on their spacecraft.”

“There’s always a lot of skeptics,” said Stu Isaac, Speedo’s
front man as the senior vice president of marketing and team
sales. “They say it’s all marketing and hype, that kind of thing. I think
now people understand that it goes beyond hype.”

Those falling world records, however, have raised suspicions
that something more sinister is at work. Has Speedo created a suit
that is somehow more buoyant, skirting the rules by allowing
swimmers to glide along the top of the water?

After one of his countrymen, Alain Bernard, set three world
records in a three-day span at the European championships, a top
French official questioned the legality of LZR Racer and called for
an investigation by governing body FINA.

There were similar complaints before the 2000 Sydney Games, the
launching point for the revolutionary full-length suits that are
now the norm. Four years later in Athens, Phelps won eight medals
(six of them gold) and the latest incarnation of the Fastskin
became the rage, leading to another round of outcry from the

FINA has called a meeting with the major swimsuit manufacturers
to coincide with this month’s short-course world championships in
Manchester, England. It was already on the agenda before Speedo’s
suit hit the water, and company officials are quick to point out
the top-secret fabric used in its LZR Racer was approved by the
governing body two years ago.

Cornel Marculescu, the organization’s executive director, said
there will be a review of “the procedures and regulations for
approval of swimwear, namely the issue of the thickness of the
swimsuits.” There’s no indication that Speedo’s suit, or the
similar groundbreaking attire trotted out by rivals companies like
Tyr and Arena, are in any danger of being shelved before
Beijing. The main goal is making sure the new suits are available to any
swimmer who wants to wear them.

“So far, all swimsuits are made from traditional materials such
as Lycra, polyester, elastic or nylon,” Marculescu said. “FINA
will continue looking at this issue. However, to our best
knowledge, the swimwear equipment is not an additional value on
achieving the best performances. We are not there yet.”

The LZR Racer will soon be available to the general
public. Pre-orders are already being taken by Speedo, with full bodysuits
going for as much as $550.

No comments: