Scientists Try to Link Swim Records to Suit

Speedo's new high-tech swimsuit is causing a stir in the swimming world.

June 18, 2008 — -- Competitive swimmers aren't the only ones testing the waters with Speedo's new controversial LZR Raser.

Now scientists will be testing the waters and the suits.

Over the past few months, world records have fallen in the sport of swimming faster than you can say "freestyle," and some opponents of the LZR are not buying that it's strictly because of the talent.

According to USA Swimming, an astonishing 40 world records have fallen this year, and of those, 36 were broken by athletes in the LZR that Speedo unveiled in February. Speedo has even created a special section on its Web site where online visitors can sign up to a "LZR Racer Results Feed" to get e-mail updates on the "jaw-dropping" records broken by athletes wearing the LZR.

Swimming records typically fall at unusually high rates during Olympic years, as athletes are conditioned to compete at the highest level, but according to Brent Rutemiller, publisher and CEO of Swimming World Magazine, the numbers this year are "unprecedented."

'Technological Doping'

The Italian swim team, which is outfitted by one of Speedo's competitors, Arena, is going after swimmers wearing the high-tech suit. Italy's coach, Alberto Castagnetti, recently told The Associated Press that Speedo's LZR is "technological doping."

Meanwhile, with the 2008 Summer Olympics — the Super Bowl of swimming — less than 100 days away, they hope their team sponsor will come up with its own answer to anti-drag swimwear by August.

Pete Vanderkaay, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist and member of the world record-holding 4x200 meter freestyle relay team that has been undefeated since Athens in 2004, told ABC News, "As long as the suit is within the guidelines of what FINA permits, then how could you make a statement like that? If FINA decides it's OK, then it's OK." (FINA is the international governing body of swimming.)

Rutemiller told ABC News, "Manufacturers are scrambling to appease their federations and their sponsored athletes to come up with a suit that's comparable," and some, like the Italians without the technology, are "crying foul."

While Speedo had a large jump on the rest of the manufacturers, others are following in its footsteps, including TYR, which has created a suit with similar polyurethane materials, the Tracer Light.

The Italian swimming federation's Institute of Medicine and Science is set to conduct a study on the relationship between the suits and the recent onslaught of world records.

But it may be too late.

FINA is standing behind its decision to allow the LZR, made with polyurethane, to be worn in competition.

FINA would not return phone calls for comment.

Record-Breaking Suit?

"If I were a professor at an MBA program, I would put this down as an example of excellence in marketing, said Dr. Brent Rushall, a sports physiologist and psychologist at San Diego State University, who has worked closely with several Olympic swim teams.

"Speedo has picked a year in which traditionally, there is a high probability that the best swimmers will be swimming better than they ever have before," said Rushall.

He also mentioned that Speedo gives its suits to all the top swimmers in the world, who are most likely to break records.

"They capture those who are going to swim very, very fast," Rushall told ABC News.

He added that while Speedo is riding a wave of success stories, "they don't tell you how many did swim and didn't break the records … how many fail."

It wouldn't be the first time a suit has sparked so much controversy.

Vanderkaay pointed out the same thing happened in 2007.

"I remember when they came out with the last one, the FS-Pro, records went down in that one too," Vanderkaay added.

Aside from the advancements in swimwear technology, Rushall attributes the record smashing to other factors, such as more coaches focusing on new training models, improvements to overall technique and more competitive opportunities.

Vanderkaay agrees, "I think people have just gotten a lot smarter in training, focusing on a lot of the physiological aspects of the sport … and it's an Olympic year."

"The suit is not the story."

LZR Raser 101

The suit more resembles the belly of a ninja turtle costume than any traditional swimsuit worn in previous competition.

Aqualab, Speedo's International research and development team, joined with NASA researchers to come up with the drag-reduction technology.

Aside from poor technique, friction is what prevents swimmers from going faster, hence the practice among elite swimmers of shaving their entire bodies before major competitions. In any swimsuit, there is a lot of skin movement, regardless of a person's weight.

Steve Wilkinson, a researcher at NASA's Fluid Physics and Control Branch, says the LZR Raser controls a lot of this extra efficiency-robbing movement.

"The tests generally have shown the smoother the fabric, the lower the drag," Wilkinson told ABC News.

Rutemiller added, "The new suit, with compression technology, it's so tight, they were able to reshape the body … it brought the center of buoyancy closer to the center of mass … and it's this buoyancy that a lot of athletes have been excited about."

Once the NASA team found the best possible fabric, they scanned 400 elite swimmers, placed low-friction panels on critical areas and then welded the suit to create an aerodynamic shape.

Rutemiller even said the suit is now being called "equipment."

And it's not cheap, at $425 to $550.

The suits will not available to the public until August or September but people are calling and asking for them already, says Ann Parker, a salesperson for Metro Swim Shop in Westport, Conn.

"[Speedo] doesn't want to make them available yet. There are still some issues with them and they're trying to work those out. There are imperfections that they are still working on," Parker told ABC News.

Vanderkaay got a chance to try the LZR at the Toyota Grand Prix at Ohio State University in April.

"I tried it on a couple of times and I liked it a lot. It's a very good suit and it felt really good," he said, although he added it did take him a little longer to put on than other suits.

LZR or no LZR, most swimming fans agree that any publicity is good publicity for the sport, and Speedo has definitely given the world something to talk about.

Says Rutemiller: "Overall, it's certainly brought a lot of attention to the sport of swimming." He added, "Our June issue will, for the first time, feature this world record holder — a suit with no person in it."

ABC's Malaika Bova contributed to this report.

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