Suiting up for change

Nov. 24, 2009, midnight | By Rose Wynn | 14 years, 4 months ago

Michael Phelps was the only one with his chest bare at the Stockholm races. But in a waist-high 2008 Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit that went to his knees, Phelps cut through the water 1.84 seconds too slow. The older-style suit left him at 16th place in the freestyle race, far behind the winners and far behind the times.

In 2008, Speedo introduced their first polyurethane swimsuit. It was a sleek, full-body, non-textile piece of technology expected to deliver faster swimming times than even the best performance-enhancement drug.

And it did. During the 2008 swimming world championships in Rome, swimmers set over 43 new world records. The vast majority of record-breakers wore the new suit, according to the New York Times. The swimmers set 13 more records than those who competed in Australia a year before the suits were introduced. By the end of 2008, the new suit technology had yielded 108 swimming world records.

Recently, the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), the international governing body of swimming, decided to ban the bodysuits starting Jan. 1, 2010. Until then, swimmers can decide whether to sport the high-tech suits or more conventional wear. At Stockholm, most swimmers stuck with polyurethane, knowing it could bring them gold and glory. But Phelps honorably chose to compete with his natural talent and strength, unaided by the technical power of a swimsuit.

His sacrifice took a toll. Phelps dragged during his push-off for the 100-meter backstroke and was disqualified from the race. He missed two finals on Tuesday, and placed only third in the 100-meter individual medley. Even in the 200-meter butterfly, his claim-to-fame, Phelps fell to fifth place. For the 200-meter individual medley, Phelps trailed behind the first-place swimmer by an entire second.

Phelps realized that his decision to shun the high-tech bodysuit would mean a blow to his rankings. "I knew this wasn't gonna be the best meet, but every now and then we need a wake-up call," he said.

An avid supporter of the swimsuit ban, Phelps decided to risk it all at Stockholm and gauge his true potential for the 2010 national swimming championships, at which swimmers will be expected to sport the older swim garments. "We have to get used to it, so it's good to start now," Phelps said in an ESPN interview.

World-class swimmers used Stockholm as an excuse to squeeze a last advantage out of the new swimsuits. As a result, five new world records were created, which may have been impossible without the polyurethane bodysuits. FINA claimed such world records would stand after the ban, regardless of whether or not they could be beaten without the bodysuits. However, FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu recently stated that such unsurpassed records could be "amended" if necessary.

It will probably be a while before the bare-chested swimmers break any sleek-suit records. For now, we can rest assured knowing that natural talent, the best measure of talent, will be winning the gold.

Rose Wynn. I love piña coladas, getting caught in the rain and the ladies of the Blair Pom Squad. More »

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