|"When I hit the water, I feel like a rocket."
—Michael Phelps gushing about the LZR Racer Suit during its launch in 2008.
It is hard to judge whether Michael Phelps' golden run at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 qualifies as human or tech-assisted, considering that the LZR Racer Suit he sported was eventually banned in 2010.
This, of course, does not take an ounce of credibility away from the legendary swimmer. Plebeians like you and me aren't a patch on the champion, even if we were to race him using a speed boat.
Which obviously raises the question—are swimsuits instrumental in increasing a swimmer's speed? We'll have to unearth a little bit of history to find the answer to this question.
Swimsuits Back Then...
The swimsuits of yore were a kind of a monstrosity, to say the least. 18th century women, for instance, wore gowns while swimming. These were long dresses made of fabrics thick enough not become transparent when wet, with weights sewn into the hems so that they would not rise up in the water. Can you, just for a moment, imagine their struggle to remain afloat wearing dregs such as these?
Men had it easier, but only slightly so. Theirs was a form-fitting woolen garment with long sleeves and legs, which obviously sucked in a lot of water, making every movement a struggle.
Dawn of the Spandex Era
A momentous struggle later, swimwear had transformed into somewhat of a style statement, instead of sports gear. Swimming, as an activity, became associated with relaxation and pleasure, and the evolution of swimwear reflected this accordingly. It began to get more form-fitting with a view to enhance the swimmer's efforts, and not work against it.
Today, there is a lot of science that goes behind the design of a professional swimmer's gear, aiming to make it refined and effortless.
How Does Contemporary Design Aid Swimming?
Anyone who has taken a lap around the swimming pool knows how tough it is for the human body to work against the fluid forces of water. These collective forces that push against your movements are termed drag. Working against water is no mean task, as most swimmers will tell you. Every time you try to push ahead, the water will force you back, more so if you are swimming closer to the surface.
Professional swimmers have many tricks up their sleeve to make the most of their time spent in the pool. They spend a lot of time in the gym, toning their abs and upper body muscles that help them with the rigorous workout that is swimming. Many swimmers get rid of body hair in order to smooth out the flow of water over the body. And then there are those who, along with all this, also don a swimsuit that supplements physical efforts.
Speedo's LZR Racer, created by Mectex in collaboration with the Australian Institute of Sport, used NASA's wind tunnel testing facilities and fluid flow analysis software. This is what it does—
- It holds the body in a hydrodynamic position.
- It aids the flow of oxygen to the muscles.
- It helps repel water and support flexibility.
- Its seams are not stitched, but welded together, which also reduces drag.
- Additionally, the swimsuit is quick drying and 100% chlorine resistant.
Speedo's LZR Racer definitely stood up to its reputation as the world's fastest swimsuit during the Beijing Olympics, with 98% medals in swimming won by swimmers wearing this swimsuit. 23 of the 25 swimming world records were broken by athletes wearing the LZR Racer.
But it was only after the 2008 European Short Course Championships in Croatia, which saw a whopping 17 records being broken by athletes in LZR Racer suits, that FINA decided to update its rules.
Performance enhancing swimsuits are claimed by some to be in the same bracket as performance-enhancing drugs, and that they qualify as technological doping. These 'fast' swimsuits may remain controversial on the professional circuit, but for those who wish to try them for recreational swimming can go ahead – as long as they can afford their steep cost.