The revolution had been taking shape for quite some time, but it wasn't until the black week at Belgrade last September that the swimming world began to pay serious notice. The East German women so solidly whomped their U.S. counterparts at the World Aquatic Games in Yugoslavia, winning 10 of 14 events and setting seven world records, that puzzled experts began looking about for the reasons. And the more they looked, to put it plainly, the more obvious the answer became.
As early as the Munich Olympics the East German women had shown up in skintight, high-neck swimsuits that in or out of the water made them resemble sleek wet seals, but their performance in the 1972 Games was not impressive enough to occasion more than admiring glances from girl-watchers or the admission by other competitors that the German suits were frankly revealing.
But in the wake of the Belgrade debacle, Mrs. Dianne Rothhammer, who had been in Yugoslavia to watch her daughter Keena compete for the U.S., summed up what had become a growing suspicion: "The East Germans couldn't be that much better trained than we are. The suits had to have something to do with it." She decided to import the suits to the U.S. despite the fact that while she was tracking down the manufacturer, U.S. girls (or their parents) proclaimed that they would never wear anything so provocative. "Swimmers themselves don't look at each other," one girl said. "It's the people in the stands and TV viewers who would make us nervous."
Bill Lee, the North American manager for Speedo swim wear, was more blunt. "These suits are gross," he said. "You can see everything." His outrage is now academic. Gross or not, the skinsuit is available through Mrs. Rothhammer, and competing firms have moved fast to copy it—including Speedo.
August 11, 1974
Olympian Shirley Babashoff, wearing the latest 1½-ounce model in the photograph at right, is one of the first U.S. women to own a Belgrad (the name given the suit by its designer, West Germany's Dr. Conrad Dottinger). She wore a standard four-ounce Belgrad for the first time last April at the National AAU Indoor Short Course championships in Dallas and clipped more than five seconds off the American record in the 500-yard freestyle. "I feel the suits are not indecent as long as everybody wears them," said Babashoff.
Heather Greenwood, who set a world record in the 400-meter free on June 9, allows, "I don't know how much my Belgrad suit contributed to my time, but it's worth something. The suit sticks to me, and there's a lot less drag because water doesn't get down the front." Later she conceded, "This may be more psychological than physical; I always think I'm going to win when I wear it." In both cases the skinsuits incorporated the first major changes in competitive swim-wear design in 13 years, and swimmers wearing them are setting records with regularity.
The pioneer skinsuit worn by the East Germans at the 1972 Games was made of a very fine cotton that, when wet, was virtually transparent. The 1973-74 version, also unlined and weighing four ounces, is made of a membranelike rubberized knit called Lycra and is a bit more opaque. The suit stretches over the body like a second skin, offering an adhesive fit that makes the name skinsuit a natural. By suggestion of Dianne Rothhammer the U.S.-model Belgrad has a bikini lining.
Most world-class competitors have worn White Stag Speedo suits since the 1960 Rome Olympics, largely because of the supersalesmanship of Bill Lee, who discovered the Australian nylon-tricot suit in 1958 when he was looking for something better for his daughter to wear in competition. Lee liked the suit so much that by 1960 he had sold 1,500 of them out of his home in California. He left his job with an advertising agency to work exclusively with Speedo, and in 1961 when White Stag became Speedo's North American distributor, Lee became its representative and proceeded to corner the world market. Recently, when Lee was asked how Speedo was going to respond to the sleek new challenger, he said, "We began making our own skinsuits 30 seconds after the Belgrade meet."
The new Speedo version for women, a mix of 78% nylon and 22% Lycra, weighs two ounces and has a racer-style back with the fabric pared away.
Another firm noted for athletic gear but heretofore landlocked is now getting its feet wet: Adidas is producing the Arena skinsuit in France. The women's version will make its debut in two weeks at the AAU Long Course Nationals in Concord, Calif. So far, this model promises to be the lightest in the world, weighing less than one ounce and featuring a multicolored diamond pattern. Arena feels the diamonds will serve two purposes. First, they can be in team or national colors; second, because of the suit's extreme gossamer quality, Arena feared that a solid color might unsettle women wearers. Indeed, the tricolor pattern makes the suit seem opaque. Arena calls its mystery fabric Elastomere and claims it is different from the other stretchy materials. Elastomere feels like silky tissue paper because it is woven with a fine elastic thread rather than knitted as the other skinsuit fabrics are. Putting on the Arena suit has been likened to "slipping into a sheer silk stocking."
Why are the skinsuits faster? One wonders if the fabric has been injected with a miracle drug that gives the swimmer added strength. It is more likely, as coaches have noted, that wearing the suit is "like going from the propeller to the jet."
The claim made for the new outfits is that they eliminate or minimize the drag that arises when water gets inside a suit and forms a bulge, slowing the swimmer's progress. Coach George Haines of the Santa Clara Swim Club sees a further advantage: "For training we want resistance. It is not unusual for swimmers to wear as many as three or four suits at one time to build drag. In competition, however, we need to eliminate it."
At the Swiss championships before the 1972 Olympics, national team members wore suits glued to the body at the neck, arm and leg openings with an adhesive. Italy's Novella Calligaris won the 800-freestyle in Belgrade in such a suit. It produced desired results, but the procedure, she complains, "is unsatisfactory because the adhesive is painful to remove."
Dr. Dottinger's patented suit features a narrow band of rubber that seals the arm, neck and leg openings, and it has the highest neckline, another improvement seen to some degree in all the new suits. "The high neckline worked fine for the 'fly, backstroke and the freestyle," says Dianne Rothhammer, "but when it came to the breaststroke, we still couldn't stop some water from getting in." That is when a latticework strip was added to the back to expel or force out water. Freestyler Greenwood noted, "You get a bubble in back when you come up in a turn. In the old-style suits it went away only after a couple of laps."
The skinsuit's racer back and larger armholes also give plenty of shoulder freedom and eliminate the straps that often were tied together in back to prevent them from slipping off. Another problem in the more conventional suit was the modest quarter-panel skirt—which could scoop up as much as a gallon of water in the turns. But eliminating the skirt was not that simple.
Since the beginning of the century the AAU rule book has decreed that women must wear skirts on their suits. And while they long ago shed black stockings and stopped measuring the length of their skirts from the ankle, women competitors still had to wear skirts until this past year. To get around the ruling, many mothers sewed lace bands or pieces of tape across the fronts of their daughters' Belgrads, often creating bizarre effects—which possibly was their intention. In the face of further ridicule, the AAU sanctioned the skirtless suit last April.
The new suits are still controversial, but all the coaches agree on one point—they should never be worn in training. Heather Greenwood says, "You wear the skinsuit only at big meets. You can lose your 'feel' for it if it's worn too much." Sherm Chavoor, coach of the Arden Hills Swim Club, says, "We don't practice in the new suits because they go too fast. We want to psych up for them. I like my girls to wear the suits when I designate. For instance, the first week in June I sent kids to Stockton for an age-group meet. Jill Shirley won a 400-meter freestyle race in 4:31 and Karen Hazen won one in 4:29 in slow suits. Two weeks later, at a Santa Clara international meet, I said, 'Wear your fast suits.' Jill won in 4:23, and Karen in 4:20. Now that meet was a high-pressure event for fast suits, and the kids felt, 'Boy, I can't go slow.' "
Coach Mark Schubert of the Mission Viejo Nadadores Swim Club says, "The main thing is the feel swimmers get in a tapered state of training. They pare their training from 16,000 or 18,000 meters a day down to about 3,000 in a three-week period. It's then that they get energy and the biggest time drops. Their mental image is 'When I get to the Nationals and put on this racing skinsuit I know I will swim to my ultimate.' "
Still, if swimsuits have come this far, one wonders what will come next. Perhaps the psychology of color and weight will give way to the final athletic demand—performance. At what price? Melissa Belote notes, "If nude swimming comes next, I'll quit." When the East Germans requested the Olympic Committee to permit nude swimming in 1976 they were turned down, some say primarily because it might have offended the spectators. But the advent of nude competitive swimming may not be that far off. Nude bathing is prevalent on European beaches and is becoming increasingly acceptable in the U.S.
One drawback to al fresco competition is that bare breasts create as much or more drag than air bubbles inside a swimsuit. "Girls with fiat chests could make better time naked," says Haines. "There is no question about it. But for the well-endowed girl, the elasticity of Lycra keeps her body streamlined."
The U.S. girls who have worn the skinsuits are enthusiastic about them. Their comments range from "All I could feel was my kick," to "When I took my first flip-turn, I wanted to reach down and see if I still had my suit on." "It's like sliding through the water," said another. "The body is completely compressed by the suit. I felt no resistance whatsoever." "I don't feel anything at all," said Babashoff. "It's just like wearing nothing."
Many feel that Lycra is only the beginning. Bill Lee, for one, thinks even better fabrics will be produced in a few years. Indeed, the swimsuit of the future might well be a spray-on rubberized coating—in team colors—which can be peeled off after a meet.
Thus, presumably, the suits are now internationally equal again. It means only one thing: when the U.S. women meet the East Germans again in Concord at the end of the month, it will be just another contest to see who are the best athletes.