High-Tech Swimsuits: Winning Medals Too

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John Biever / Sports Illustrated

Members of the U.S. men's 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay team in Beijing.

In sports, putting on a uniform is a kind of pre-game ritual, be it strapping on the pads, lacing up spikes, or slamming on a fierce-looking helmet. In competitive swimming, that was never the case; how long could it possibly take to get into a bathing suit? But with the advent of a new generation of racing suits, swimmers now spend inordinate amounts of time hopping around half-naked trying to put on a suit that could fit a 12-year-old.

Once on, however, the suit often has an empowering effect on athletes — and there's no question that the hyper-designed racing suits of Speedo and TYR have contributed to a ton of new world records. Speedo claimed 33 of the first 36 medals in the Beijing games; swimmers in Speedo's LZR suits are breaking world records right and left. It obviously helps when you have Michael Phelps in your stable. Still, put one of these new suits on and you get a feeling of strength — a psychological superman cape. Even though I swim competitively, at first I didn't understand all of the hoopla surrounding the swimsuit controversies at the Games. Swimmers have been demanding the $550 Speedo suit, even to the point of breaking their contracts with TYR, which had great success in the Athens Olympics.

So I tried both. The TYR Tracer Rise, a $450, three-quarter-length body suit, has a large silver panel on the front with two thin stripes running from the inside of the back down the sides of the legs. These panels are made with a polyurethane coating, designed to eliminate drag. TYR spent more than three years working on the suit. The focus of its research, according to Matt Zimmer, promotions director, was the lightweight, water-repellent fabric and muscle contour compression. The idea behind the compression is two-fold: first of all it provides a barrier between water and skin, reducing what has come to be known as the "jiggle" effect. Second, it keeps blood flow in the body core rather than allowing it to leak to the extremities and cause fatigue.

Swimming in the Tracer I noticed the compression in my legs was greater than with any other suit I've worn. It made me feel explosive and helped me kick effectively. The suit felt light, like I was swimming in saltwater, and although it wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world — it took 20 minutes to get into — it was fast.

For this Olympics, TYR had to alter its design focus. Four years ago, the company had developed a suit called the Aqua Shift, using a technology borrowed from airplanes and Formula One car racing, but never before used on a swimsuit. It used a system of turbulators, or tripwires, that wrap around the chest and back and disrupt, or trip, the flow of water down the body. This was significant because in previous attempts to reduce drag, the water would run quickly down the body and then form an eddy that would literally pull the swimmer backwards. So, in effect, the turbulators reduced total drag by increasing (slightly) the amount of friction on the surface of the body.

And the Aqua Shift worked well. Too well, in fact. After the 2004 Olympics the governing body for international swimming, FINA, decided that tripwire technology was too extreme and, according to TYR, banned any form of protuberances from swimsuits.

After having battled with FINA over this and other technologies, the TYR team decided to take a more holistic approach to the suit for 2008. While it spent plenty of time in the lab developing fabric and design structure, TYR focused most of its efforts on the swimmers and in the pool. Eric Shanteau, a member of the American Olympic team, swam seven personal best times at trials in a suit that he helped design. (Yes, he's the guy who went to Beijing despite a diagnosis of testicular cancer.) Shanteau, for example, had about an inch and a half of material taken out of the waistband part of the suit to make it cling more precisely on his body. "That really helped the fitting for me," he says. That modification was eventually incorporated in the standard model which is being used by many of TYR's 200 sponsored athletes; others opted for custom-fit suits, an option that was offered to all.

Speedo has clearly won the Battle of Beijing. After Athens, Speedo brought an army of biophysicists, kinesiologists, and engineers to bear on overhauling the last generation of its Fastskin racing suit, the FS Pro. So the LZR Racer has a few more bells and whistles than the Tracer Rise. For one thing, it looks a lot cooler. The long grey panels — you feel like an astronaut crossed with a figure skater — are products of multiple levels of technological innovation. Speedo used a NASA lab to measure more than 90 different fabrics in a wind tunnel to find the one with the smallest drag coefficient. It eventually settled on a nylon estane base fabric and a thin polyurethane membrane for the panels. Speedo hired ANSYS Fluent — known most recently for its work on the Formula One team BMW Sauber — which used computational fluid dynamics to measure the parts of the body with the most drag. And biomechanists used flume testing (basically a lab set up in a pool, measuring drag as a current runs over the swimmer or mannequin) to measure exactly how much time each modification shed for the swimmer When I tried on the LZR, this drag-reducing technology was definitely the most pronounced advancement on the suit. I've raced in Fast Skin suits before, but the LZR feels different. Neither especially light nor heavy, it seemed fastest during the streamline, the position the swimmer holds coming out of the dive and off the wall. I felt like a launched torpedo, like I could push off and, without trying, glide all the way down the pool. In addition to the fabric, Speedo developed a support system called a core stabilizer, designed to combat what's known as form drag. Rick Sharp, a kinesiologist from Iowa State University, explains that when a swimmer gets tired, his mechanics start to deteriorate, and the resulting dip in the lower back significantly increases drag. The water, flowing down the back, crashes into the arch of the buttocks creating a "rooster tail" effect. The core stabilizer helps the swimmer maintain good body position in the water by subtly rolling the hips forward in the water.

According to Sharp, if "you can get rid of that little bit of scoop in the small of the back, you won't have nearly the amount of crashing of water into the top of the buttocks." So, by adding a bonded layer of elastic fabric to the inside of the suit around the abdomen and lower back, the core stabilizer compresses the hips and helps the swimmer maintain a flat, streamline position in the water.

Like TYR, Speedo also received feedback from swimmers, including Australia's Grant Hackett, Americans Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte and, of course, Mr. Phelps. These swimmers helped tweak the feel of the suit, as well as submitting themselves to full body scans and hand measurements (400 in total) to help create a digital framework for the design.

You can wear the LZR or TYR and feel as fast as a dolphin — and don't discount the psychological effect of wearing something high tech. But you are still not likely to catch Phelps, who, it must be said, only wears the bottom half of his new Speedo wonder suit for most races. For any swimmer, it is the more important half to be wearing.