OMAHA, Neb. — Kevin Cordes arrived here this week looking like the GEICO caveman—a bushy head of hair, thick beard, plenty of fur on the rest of his body. By Sunday morning, the 2016 Olympian will be nearly hairless.
The process starts with the electric clippers. Then he’ll go through four razors. And there will be a back shave from a friend. That’s the 75-minute deforestation process Cordes will navigate before he dives into the pool in the 100-meter breaststroke Sunday at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
When you’re trying to get to Tokyo, every hundredth of a second—and thus, every friction-inducing hair follicle—can matter. That’s why some swimmers go from resembling Duck Dynasty characters to pre-pubescent cherubs overnight.
Shaving is the ritual swimmers perform before a big meet, removing all hair that cannot be covered by a swim cap or suit. (And, truth be told, a lot of the hidden hair will go as well.) The goal is to reduce drag (a small factor) and enhance the mental gain from a more streamlined sensation in the water (a big factor). “It’s really that feeling you’ve been searching for,” Cordes says. “You feel that smoothness, like you’re gliding. It’s that easy speed you’ve been waiting for.”
Now consider this: Cordes is just one of more than 400 swimmers here who will be dumping body hair in bulk over the next week. Men with beards. Women with leg hair. An armada of arm pits. As they say in the furniture clearance sale business: everything must go.
Let the slightly gross shedding begin. “It’s a whole spectacle,” says three-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel, now a TV analyst. “I even shaved the hair on my toes.”
Pity the poor hotel drains that have to handle the spectacle. Here come these Lord of the Rings extras, preparing to turn local lodging into a mass body-scaping event.
To assess the situation, I called the head of housekeeping at the Hilton Omaha Downtown this week to see if they’re prepared for the onslaught. She didn’t get back to me, probably because her staff was busy pouring a pre-emptive Liquid-Plumr strike in every shower. I checked in with Eyman Plumbing, a local outfit, and was told that the threat is real: “When lots of hair is going down the drains, it will create backups and clogs,” Eyser’s phone answerer says. “The drains need to be properly maintained.” (She stopped short of pitching me on a two-year maintenance plan.)
Hopefully the hotel pipes hold up better than the rooms in the athlete village at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. For some swimmers, there is some PTSD still associated with shaving there. “I don’t know what was wrong with the drains in the village,” Beisel says. “It was disgusting, to be honest.”
Razors are as much a part of racing as tech suits. But they aren’t used often.
One of the demanding facets of the sport is that swimmers at the highest level gear their entire years around one or two major meets. In an Olympic year, such as this one, that means the sole focus is U.S. team trials and then the Summer Games in Tokyo. They spend months in something of a furry fugue state of training-induced exhaustion, when a big meet can seem light years away. “Swimming is kind of brutal that way,” Cordes says. “Throughout the year you really have to put your head down and remember what you’re working for. The payoff is going to be there when you rest and finally shave.”
Ahead of those major competitions is the only time they back off in training—tapering is the term—and rest their bodies. Along with a lack of rest comes a lack of shaving; swimmers stay shaggy, not wanting to lose that boost by peeling the hair off their bodies too routinely. Hockey has playoff beards; swimming has training beards. “Everyone thinks we’re fully shaved all the time,” says Caeleb Dressel, the current male star of American swimming. “We’re actually some of the hairiest people around.”
Beisel affirms: “We’re all hairy, all year-round. Yes, even the girls.” Before competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Beisel shaved Dressel’s back and he shaved the back of her neck. That’s what teammates are for.
Maya DiRado, who won four medals in Rio, said that the hair growth became a running joke as the weeks and months stretched on between meets—especially when she compared with her fair-haired boyfriend and now husband, Rob Andrews. “I’m Italian,” she says. “There were times Rob and I would put our legs next to each other and you wouldn’t know who was the girl.”
Part of the key to a well-timed taper—hitting the big meet just right physically and mentally—is waiting to fully shave until right before the first race. For Cordes, the shaving process to compete Sunday starts with a beard trimming and using the clippers on some of his body Saturday morning—when he practices Saturday, he’ll start to get a lighter feel. “It’s literally peeling the layers day by day, feeling faster each morning,” he says.
Saturday night, it’s time to get down to serious business. That’s when the razors come out for most of the body hair. Now 27 years old, Cordes has improved his efficiency—he says it used to take him up to three hours to shave. Now he can knock it out in an hour and 15 minutes before bedtime. “What I look forward to most is putting on some sweats and getting under the covers,” he says. “It feels pretty good.”
Sunday morning, the final touches are applied: off goes the rest of the beard, and the armpit hair. “Those are kind of sensitive,” he says. Then it’s time to go to the pool.
The very shaving process serves as a mental reset. After the rest has restored the body, here comes the last signal that the endless preparation is now in the rearview mirror and it’s time to compete. “It’s that extra little realization,” Beisel says. “Like, ‘Yeah, this is go time.’ “
And the feeling diving in for warmups after the first full shave in … forever? Transformational.
“It feels colder,” DiRado says. “You feel very sensitive and aware of the water.”
“You feel so smooth and slick in the water,” Beisel says. “I don’t know if there’s science behind it, but it just gets you in that game-ready mode.”
In the weeks before the 2016 Olympic Trials, Cordes had a dream one night: he was trying to swim with a mascot suit on. “A bear or something,” he says. He told his coach about it, and they agreed that when the dreams are going that direction it was time to start tapering and, ultimately, peeling off the body hair.
“Shaving,” Cordes says, “is kind of like shedding that mascot suit.”
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