FOR WEEKS Anna Turner, a senior at Arizona, has been test-driving every high-tech swimsuit she can get her hands on. Since she helped lead the Wildcats to their first NCAA team title in March, she has squeezed herself into certain pricey designs at practice and tried others at meets. She has compared suits with friends as she would MP3 players and cellphones. After setting four personal bests at a meet two weeks ago, she finally decided what she'll wear when she swims five events—the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyles and the 100 and 200 backstrokes—at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha from June 29 to July 6. "All the suits are fast, so it comes down to a personal preference," says Turner, who will don a Blueseventy Swimskin for the 50 free and a Speedo LZR Racer for everything else. "It's about whatever makes you feel most comfortable, whatever gives you the most confidence." Does some of that confidence stem from the 38 world records set this year by swimmers wearing the LZR? She pauses, then says, "I guess you could say that."
This is an article from the June 23, 2008 issue
Few others in the elite ranks of swimming have been so calmly analytical about the swimsuit war that has roiled their sport since the LZR's debut in February. Critics claim the suit illegally aids flotation; Italian national team coach Alberto Castagnetti, whose swimmers wear suits by Italian maker Arena (a team sponsor), has called the LZR "technological doping." FINA, the sport's governing body (which is sponsored by Speedo), has approved the LZR and each of the more than half-dozen other high-tech full-body suits that competing companies have scrambled to manufacture in an effort to keep pace. Speedo's main competitor in the U.S., TYR Sport, which spent three years and several million dollars developing its ultrafast Tracer Rise suit, filed an antitrust lawsuit in California on May 12 that accuses Speedo, USA Swimming and national team director Mark Schubert of conspiring to block competition from TYR and other manufacturers. "This is the first time in my life that swimming has gotten this much press," says Ben Wildman-Tobriner, a top U.S. sprinter sponsored by Speedo. "Unfortunately, it's about a piece of technology rather than a swimmer."
The full-body era of the swimming arms race began in 2000, when Australia's Ian Thorpe won three gold medals and two silvers while wearing a sleek Adidas suit at the Sydney Olympics. But the LZR has upped the ante. Consider: In the first six months of 2004, the last Summer Olympic year, one long-course world record was broken. Twenty such marks have fallen this year, 19 of them to swimmers wearing LZR Racers. The most eye-popping times have come in the men's 50 free. The record of 21.64 seconds set by Russia's Alexander Popov in 2000 now seems like a leisurely paddle: Last winter the standard was broken four times in six weeks by LZR-clad swimmers; Australia's Eamon Sullivan finally lopped it down to 21.28 in March. "Those times are otherworldly," says Phil Whitten, executive director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America. "You wouldn't expect that kind of improvement for another 30 or 40 years."
Whitten and writer Craig Lord of The Times of London have analyzed the results of athletes swimming with and without the LZR. "We calculate that [the suit] makes a difference of about 1.9 percent to 2.2 percent, with greater effect in shorter races," says Whitten. "That's a lot."
England-based Speedo says that the biggest advance of the LZR, the product of three years and several million dollars' worth of research and development at the company's Aqualab facility in Nottingham, is in drag reduction (box). Add to that improved compression, which streamlines the body and helps the muscles perform more efficiently, and a girdlelike "internal core stabilizer" designed to keep swimmers in the proper body position even as they tire, and you have a suit that can make wearers feel, as U.S. backstroke world champion Ryan Lochte puts it, "like I'm swimming downhill."
The hoopla surrounding the LZR has rattled swimmers contractually obligated to wear other manufacturers' gear. Elite sprinter Fabien Gilot of France has threatened to wear the LZR at the Olympics if the Powerskin R-Evolution+ suit his sponsor, Arena, recently introduced isn't comparable. "I didn't work hard to be beaten by equipment," he said at the French nationals in April. Japan's swim federation, which had demanded in late April that its sponsors (Mizuno, Asics and Descente) come up with new high-tech suits within a month, decided to let its team members wear the LZR anyway after Japanese swimmers donning the Speedo set 16 national records and one world record at a meet two weeks ago.
USA Swimming is sponsored by Speedo, but swimmers are free to wear suits from other manufacturers. Schubert, who helped develop the LZR, has been an unabashed booster of the suit. He told reporters at the short-course world championships in Manchester, England, in April that he would recommend that all swimmers wear it at the U.S. trials, regardless of which manufacturer sponsors them, "or they may end up at home watching [the Beijing Olympics] on NBC."
Such comments have angered officials of the Huntington Beach, Calif.--based TYR (pronounced TIER), which was cofounded in 1985 by two-time U.S. Olympian Steve Furniss. TYR claims its Tracer Rise offers as much as a 4% improvement in times; according to Whitten's analysis, the Tracer "is probably about the equal of the Speedo suit."
"We feel a lot of swimmers have been dissuaded from even trying the TYR," says TYR lawyer Larry Hilton. "The cause for that is the relationship between Speedo and the national governing body, which gives [comments like Schubert's] an air of credibility that a typical marketing statement from Speedo would not have." (Schubert has declined to discuss the lawsuit; Speedo spokesman Stu Isaac calls it "meritless.")
Sponsor companies' influence on governing bodies is just one issue raised by the swimsuit war. Others include the prospect that "technological doping" might supplant the more conventional kind, and the question of whether records set in the high-tech models should carry an asterisk. USA Swimming CEO Chuck Wielgus dismisses the last notion as silly. "This isn't a lot different from what goes on in other sports," he says. "There are golf purists who would love to see everyone playing with persimmon woods."
Swimmers and coaches are understandably reluctant to give too much credit to a suit. Michael Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, laughs at the idea that the high-tech properties of the LZR—a suit he and the Speedo-sponsored Phelps helped develop—could somehow diminish Phelps's quest for eight gold medals in Beijing. "Michael has worn the suit more than anybody," says Bowman, "and he has had more mediocre swims in it than he has had good ones. If it's the suit that sets the world records, he really should have torn up the record books by now."
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