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Suits me: Going for a swim in the record-breaking LZR Racer

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Olympic swimmers broke 25 world records at Beijing's Water Cube over the course of the nine-day swimming program. To put that number into perspective, consider this: the only Olympics in which more marks fell was at the Montreal Games in 1976 (30), the first Olympics where goggles were used. Being able to see underwater, which allowed swimmers to plan their turns before their heads smacked the wall, made for a big drop in times. During the ensuing 32 years, the sport has had a steady stream of technical advances -- better training tools like short fins, ergonomically-designed hand paddles, and the full body suit designs that debuted in Sydney in 2000. All of these things were helpful, of course, but there's been nothing as seismic as the advent of goggles.

Until now.

Last February, Speedo unveiled a new suit called the LZR Racer. It was less an upgrade on their existing full body competition suit, the FastSkin FSII, than a complete reinvention. "Every so often there are major leaps," says Craig Brommer, Speedo's vice president of marketing. "In 1932, there was the first racer back suit. In 1956, there was the debut of the men's brief at the Melbourne Olympics."

The company believes that the LZR is an equally profound invention -- and the athletes who've raced in it tend to agree. As LZR-wearing swimmers instantly began to chalk up world records, word got around that anyone not competing in one at the Olympic Trials might end up "at home watching on NBC," American coach Mark Schubert said.

MichaelPhelps' coach Bob Bowman agreed. "We were involved in making it," he said. "We love it. And what we're finding is that the swimmers who've worn that suit have dropped two percent off their best times. Which is an enormous amount."

Swimmers who were under contract to race in TYR, Nike, Arena, Mizuno, and others, were torn: support their sponsors or take the advantage offered by the LZR? Sensing bad PR, Speedo allowed the basics of the LZR to be copied; their rivals scrambled to create similar suits. In the end, most swimmers in Beijing competed in Speedo (although several countries, including Italy, wore Arena suits).

So, is the hype justified? Is the LZR as unique as advertised, or is its success the result of better-trained swimmers aided by the psychological boost of being told they'll feel like rocketships whenever they pull one on? There was only one way to find out. In Beijing, I borrowed a size 26 women's LZR and got into the water. Though I can't claim to have set any world records in the InterContinental Hotel's pool at the Olympic Green, I did learn firsthand what the fuss is about.

Here's the lowdown on what Speedo calls "The World's Fastest Swimsuit":

You've got to hand it to Speedo for introducing an unlikely pair of dance partners: How often do you find Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons -- an avant garde fashionista whose designs grace the pages of Vogue -- collaborating with fluid hydrodynamic engineers? The LZR is, for the most part, black and gray, with the polyurethane compression panels creating a sort of armor appearance (not unlike a Ninja Turtle's). But Kawakubo created some beautiful, subtle graphics on the legs; a pattern based on Japanese calligraphy.

Cosmetic appearance is not the point here, however. Performance is. Many large brains worked on this suit, including a design team within Speedo known as "AquaLab," NASA scientists and other high end engineers. The LZRs seams are ultrasonically welded so as not to create drag; there is only one factory in the world -- it's in Portugal -- that can do this.

I'd been warned that the suit takes 20 minutes to pull on, so I used the wetsuit trick of slipping plastic bags over my feet to make things easier. It did -- to a point. It still took 10 minutes to get the thing over my legs, and three people to zip me up. The LZR's fabric, Brommer had warned, isn't soft like Lycra. Rather, it has a delicate, papery feel. And while the material is super-thin it takes effort to stretch it, as though it were far thicker elastic. The polyurethane panels act as a truss, which gives you the feeling of being hugged by the suit. Support=strength; think of weight lifters wearing their weight belts.

In short, you feel pretty badass in the LZR. That is no accident. When designing the suit, Speedo also probed swimmers' psyches. "We asked them how they wanted to feel on the blocks," Brommer says. "Michael Phelps said that he wanted to feel like Superman." Did it work? "I feel better in the water than I have in any other suit," Phelps says.

There's something comforting in being squeezed -- hard -- by your swimsuit. For elite swimmers the name of the game is streamlining, and it definitely feels like the LZR helps do this. When wet, the papery material sticks to your body in a way that even Lycra does not (and in flume tests, the LZR was shown to have 38 percent less drag). One caveat: If you don't get the bottom of the suit positioned correctly on your legs, the top yanks hard on your shoulders. In other words, you can't be in a rush to get into it.

When the LZR becomes widely available this fall, it will retail for $550. This is a lot of dough for a scrap of fabric that weighs less than a T-shirt. While Speedo says its goal is not to generate huge profits (which an elite racing suit could never do in any case; the potential customer base is too small), but rather to elevate the elite end of the sport, it's clear that the company is passing on its high development costs, approximated by Brommer as "tens of millions of dollars." While the hefty price tag is no concern to Olympians, all of whom will get their LZRs gratis, the have/have-not world of $550 swimsuits is more likely to cause rifts in age group swimming. It's not hard to imagine 12-year-old swimmers clamoring for LZRs so they can break club records, but not every young competitor will have the option. In Canada, the province of British Columbia recently passed a rule intended to preempt a kind of LZR arms race: it banned full body suits for any swimmer under 18. Watch for other provinces, states, and countries to follow.

If you've got a spare $550, a couple of friends to zip you up, and you really need to take a second or two off your 200 butterfly time, this is the suit for you. Bravo, Speedo.