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Suit changes take swimmers to new heights

New high-tech swimwear are aimed at increasing speed by reducing drag.
Australian Matt Walsh surfaces for air during the launch of the Speedo Fastskin FSll swimsuit in Sydney, Australia last year. The suit is claimed to reduce drag by up to 4 percent.Rob Griffith / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The suits that looked so revolutionary at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia — some covering the entire body — are now commonplace at pools across the world.

But the quest to make swimmers go faster hasn’t let up, shifting to more subtle changes such as fabrics that reduce drag, formfitting caps and streamlined goggles.

“From a technical standpoint, we’ve made another big leap forward,” said Steve Furniss, a 1972 Olympic bronze medalist and co-founder of TYR Sport, one of the leading swimsuit manufacturers.

Everyone has a catchy name to promote its suit. Top dog Speedo has the “FSII,” successor to the Fastskin that was worn by 80 percent of the medal winners in Sydney. TYR has the “Aqua Shift.” Nike has the “Swift Swim.”

All are designed to reduce drag, one of the most important aspects when it comes to knocking off those precious tenths of a second that might make the difference between winning a  medal or going home with nothing.

“If I could put something on my wall,” said Barry Bixler, an aerospace engineer who works with Speedo, “it would be, 'It’s the drag, stupid.”’

Simply put, swimsuit manufacturers are constantly striving to come up with ways to make the water flow more smoothly around a swimmer’s body, thereby reducing the resistance and making it easier to go faster.

Heading into the Sydney Games five years ago, the sport was propelled by the greatest technological advance in more than two decades — the bodysuit. The high-tech attire provided less resistance than shaved skin and kept the body a little higher on the water. So much for those skimpy suits.

Most Olympic swimmers opted for a suit that covered at least the lower half of their body. Australian star Ian Thorpe went all the way, choosing a suit that covered everything but his hands, feet and head.

The record book didn’t stand a chance. Fifteen world marks were tied or beaten.

Now, switch ahead to Athens last year, where the suits appeared much the same to the casual observer.

“It may not look like much has gone on,” Furniss conceded.

Wrong. In this relatively specialized field, the manufacturers went all out to come up with suits that to get their swimmers on the medal stand in Greece — and then to tout their products for a worldwide audience.

The competition is fierce.

Some swimmers talk about their suits as they would an old friend, speaking of the trust they have in a piece of tight-fitting fabric and the steadfast belief that it will lead to faster times at the Olympics.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Michael Phelps, a Speedo guy and one of the biggest stars at the Athens games. “To be in the fastest suit in the world is an honor. It’s definitely going to change the sport of swimming.”

Others scoff that too much emphasis is being place on technology instead of the athlete.

“They would have you believe that anyone who gets in these suits is going to swim as fast as Michael Phelps. That’s simply not the case,” said medalist Gary Hall, who didn’t represent any of the big three at Athens.

“This sport should be 'mano a mano' — not my suit is better than your suit. If I had my way, everyone would swim in the same nylon suit.”

Furniss said it’s all part of the natural progression of sport.

Swimsuits aren’t the only thing that’s changed at the pool. Lane lines, starting blocks, even the pool itself — all have undergone significant improvements over the years, always with an eye toward faster times.

“Look at all sports,” Furniss said. “The fiberglass pole vault was a whole new leap forward. The oversized rackets in tennis. The titanium golf club. The clapskate in speedskating. Those kind of changes always bring speculation and curiosity.”

A consultant to Speedo, Bixler used something known as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to help come up with a better swimsuit. The same techniques are used to design cars, boats and planes.

Ed Moses and Gabrielle Reese, both members of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, went to Hollywood to have their entire bodies scanned by a special effects company. Bixler used those images to create virtually identical mannequins — one male, one female — that could be used to handle the bulk of the testing at a water flume in New Zealand. Videotapes and computer analysis show the subtle changes that occur when water passes around the body.

“It’s given us a real advantage,” Bixler said. “We’re not just guessing.”

The mannequins were crucial to the development process, though Moses and Rose took over for the final round of testing.

“The mannequins allow us to do a lot more testing than we could with just swimmers,” Bixler said. “If we want to keep them underwater for five minutes, we can. Swimmers tend to complain about that.”

Bixler’s team tested a wide variety of fabrics, discovering subtle differences in how they affected drag. Speedo came up with a suit that blended different fabrics, trying to find the perfect balance between speed and comfort.

“One fabric worked well in low velocities,” Bixler said. “Using CFD analysis, we could tell where the velocity is low on the body. This fabric has the advantage of being more comfortable and flexible than the others. So we used that fabric as much as possible, while the rest of the areas we put a stiffer fabric that is better in all velocities.”

Tyr conducted its research at the University of Buffalo’s Center for Research and Education in Special Environments (CRESE), using a circular pool equipped with a boom that pulled a test swimmer through the water.

According to Furniss, Tyr was able to conduct the most extensive tests yet on “total drag” — the friction of the skin, the resistance of moving through the water, and the impact created by the surrounding turbulence.

The result was “Tripwire” technology, thin strips of bulging fabric that are positioned on the chest, hips and buttocks, essentially working like the spoiler on a stock car.

“We think this is some pretty cool garment engineering,” Furniss said. “We know it reduces the total drag, which makes it easier to go from point A to point B.”

Furniss’ company came up with another revolutionary idea. Addressing complaints that a full bodysuit was too restrictive on the shoulders, Tyr developed bands that could be worn on both arms, disconnected from the rest of the suit. But FINA, the governing body of swimming, ruled the suit was illegal forthe Athens games.

Speedo, meanwhile, is turning its research to other areas. The company has developed a cap that conforms better to shape of the head, reducing the ripples and bumps. Also on the way; streamlined goggles that don’t stick out as far from the eye socket.

Nike has gone a step further, developing a strapless goggle that uses medical adhesive to attach two independent lenses over each eye.

All in the name of going faster.

“We can’t take a swimmer who didn’t train and make him do as well as a swimmer who trained. Training is still paramount,” Furniss said. “But the suit can make the difference of a tenth of a second. In the Olympics, that might be the difference between first and fourth.”