By Kristie Kahl
Athletes of the swimming world will have to start showing more skin in order to prove whether they can sink or swim as associations around the world have banned high-tech suits from all competition.
On July 24, the Fédération Internationale de Natation’s (FINA) general congress of 201-member countries banned performance-enhancing suits for all international competition, which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2010. The NCAA and National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) followed in FINA’s footsteps, banning “speed suits” for all three collegiate divisions and high school competition, effective since Sept. 1.
As for Rider’s swimming teams, the controversy should not affect them too much, considering the Broncs only used the high-tech suits in their 2009 championship season last February where the team sported apparel called Blueseventy swimsuits.
“I mean [the suits] definitely helped,” said junior freestyle swimmer Brianna Burns. “I think it is fair now because everyone will be back to the same old regular bathing suits.”
These performance-enhancing suits were made of fabric that could improve speed, buoyancy and endurance, while others also created “air-trapping” effects to artificially enhance speed. The high-tech suits were seeing performance advantages of up to 6 seconds per 100 meters.
“To manage your balance, you have to use your muscles,” said swimming and diving Head Coach Steve Fletcher. “And with the suit, the buoyancy nearly eliminated that problem. So now, if you have poor balance and poor technique, sometimes the suit would overcome some of those limitations you have as an athlete.”
Burns can recall distinctly how the suit improved her performance.
“I remember putting it on and jumping in the pool, and I felt amazing,” she said. “It felt kind of like I was cheating because I was going so fast.”
Under the international rule according to FINA, “no swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device or swimsuit that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition.”
In the new ruling, the material of the swimsuits must be 100 percent permeable by water and air; suits cannot extend below the knees; for women, suits cannot extend past the shoulder; for men, suits cannot go above the navel; and suits cannot be any thicker than .08 millimeters.
The polyurethane suits have caused much controversy across the swimming world. Some feel the banning of speed suits will set the sport back in time, while others agree the suits have taken away from the athleticism of the sport.
Fletcher fully agrees with the stance on banning the high-tech suits as “it reemphasizes technique and work.”
“The fact that a 12-year-old won’t have to spend $3,000 a year on a championship suit just to keep up with their buddy is great,” he said. “It levels the playing field to limit the equipment in that matter. It makes it more about how fit you are as an athlete, how good of a swimmer you are and things like that.”
As a result of the high-tech suits’ use, a massive amount of records around the world have been broken in the speed suits’ short existence. SwimmingWorldMagazine.com reported that 70 NCAA records were broken in 2009 alone.
In the 17 months that the LZR Racer from Speedo was used, more than 130 world records have fallen — 108 in 2008. In Olympic individual events, only four world records remain prior to the use of the special suits — the men’s 400- and 1,500-meter freestyles and the women’s 100 breaststroke and 100 butterfly.
Throughout use of high-tech suits during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 21 out of 32 events had world records broken a total of 25 times while a total of 66 Olympic records were set. The Olympics had races where the top five finishers in a given event swam faster than the old world record.
Despite the ban, official times will still stand for swimmers who broke records in the high-tech suits. The NCAA will provide pre-2009 records on heat sheets for all championships with an asterisk representing any record broken with the assistance of the polyurethane suit.
As well as the amount of records broken, another problem with the suits was the cost and endurance of the material. Polyurethane suits can range anywhere from $200 to over $500. With such a high cost, swimmers are only able to get “two championship meets lasting three days a shot” out of the suits, according to Fletcher.
“The compression elements would lose the element [of the polyurethane material] over time,” he said. “Over six days of racing, a suit isn’t as effective in enhancing speed.”
Rider’s teams did not start using the suits until seniors tested them out at a Princeton meet in December 2008. After that, every Bronc competed in the MAAC Championships and ECACs with the Blueseventy suit. The athletes paid in part out of pocket while the rest of the costs came from fundraising.
“For programs nationwide to have to take on those costs is a deterrent for the growth and the preservation of college swimming,” Fletcher said. “With budgets in our current economic climate, no one wants to take on an additional budget expense of $10,000 to $15,000 to buy a suit for two big meets and then take that expense on again the next year.”
Despite its cons, the high-tech suit was able to aid the Broncs in the 2009 postseason. For example, out of the 40 events at the 2009 MAAC Championships, Rider claimed 21 of the 36 MAAC records. While Rider set six relay records, 15 Broncs were able to set individual records. Although speed suits were used, three of the 15 individual records were claimed by Broncs who set the same MAAC record in the previous year.
Even without the high-tech suits, Rider has found much success under Fletcher’s reign. Since 2002, the Broncs have broken 23 records, with seven claimed in 2008.
“I think the suits did affect every athlete’s performance that wore it,” Fletcher said. “Although I will say, if you look back over the years, dramatic changes and consistent improvements across the team is something we are able to accomplish every season and that is the foundation of our program.”
With so many MAAC records claimed last year and a division title to defend, the Broncs will have to prove themselves again this year, with simply less of a bathing suit to keep them afloat.
“I think we’re a team that, without the suits, we would have done just as well,” Burns said. “They did help some of our events, but I guess we’ll just have to see in the next year.”
By Kristie Kahl