Five-ring Circus

Full Speedo Ahead

Can Michael Phelps’ cutting-edge swimsuit make me a better swimmer?

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

Michael Phelps in the LZR

When I first started swimming competitively, in junior high, we took pride in the sheer, tattered swimsuits we’d wear layered one atop another for extra drag in practice. It was, after all, the Flashdance era, when droopy layers had no small cachet. But come meet day, we’d do anything to be sleek—shave our legs and squeeze ourselves into too-tight Lycra suits, at the time still a newish technology. The goal was to minimize turbulence and to maximize forward momentum in the water. If the look intimidated a few competitors, so much the better.

That goal hasn’t changed, though a new breed of racing suits—most notably Speedo’s much-hyped LZR Racer—has taken sleekness to new limits. To make its latest high-tech, skinlike suit, Speedo enlisted NASA’s wind tunnels, a water flume at New Zealand’s Otago University, and the once-radical fashion design of Comme des Garçons Rei Kawakubo. Whatever Speedo’s doing seems to be working: “When I hit the water [in the LZR Racer], I feel like a rocket,” claims Michael Phelps, who’s set two world records in LZR suits. Since its introduction in February, swimmers wearing the LZR Racer have claimed close to 50 world records.

Not surprisingly, cries of “technological doping” have erupted from swimming insiders. Athletes and teams sponsored by other swimwear companies have defected to Speedo for big races, for fear of whiffing on a world record or losing an Olympic slot due to brand loyalty, and the jilted companies have filed lawsuits. Despite the outcry, FINA, the governing body of international swimming, reviewed the supersuits and declared them legal for competition.

How could a swimsuit make such an impact on a swimmer’s performance? To find out, I tried one out myself. The suits were designed for the most elite swimmers in the world, but I took a neck-to-ankle bodysuit version of the LZR Racer (retail value $550) for a couple of test drives, to see what it could do for a devoted, but by no means extraordinary, swimmer like me. I competed in high school and swam on masters teams for some 10 years after college. Since having babies, I haven’t gotten back into serious training—Dara Torres I’m not—but I still swim pretty quickly. I tried the suit in the water twice—once on vacation in Italy, where I sprinted back and forth in our villa’s pool, and once back home in Seattle, when I took it for a milelong swim in Lake Washington to test its qualities over time.

I was expecting the LZR Racer to be as hard to put on as the wetsuits I’ve worn for open-water racing—a pain-in-the-ass wriggle that makes you confront some of the more problematic parts of your body. But getting into the Speedo suit is much harder, like a lobster trying to molt backward. The LZR feels like paper, not cloth, and it is extraordinarily tight and stretchy. There is a second layer of core-compressing mesh that is particularly hard to get around the fleshier expanses of my hips and thighs. To get the super-flat zipper in the back closed, I tug the suit together while my husband pulls a Hattie MacDaniel and muscles the zipper closed.

The author in the LZR

Once vacuum-packed, I am quite a sight. The suit is darkly sheer in many places—all the more so because I am not nearly as lithe as an Olympic swimmer. (I doubt any of them are breast-feeding.) Rubbery expanses of matte black polyurethane keep my private bits concealed, but I can’t help feeling like a dumpy Cher wannabe circa “If I Could Turn Back Time” (sans belly chain and aircraft carrier).

Even before I hit the pool, the first effect of the LZR is evident: It is one hell of a girdle. There is no jiggle to my walk, and previously droopy parts of my body are sucked up and in. Speedo is owned by Warnaco, which also makes underwear, and I cannot help but think that its lingerie divisions might be soon dipping into the body-tightening technology for their support garments. This firming up, of course, will make me more hydrodynamic since there are fewer obtrusive body parts to create turbulence in the water. It also has the effect of holding my body in a longer, leaner line as I swim. When I dive in, I feel propelled forward.

The hydrodynamic bit is enhanced by the polyurethane patches, which shed water as I swim. These PU sections are at the heart of the technical controversy between Speedo and other swimwear manufacturers, who say they thought FINA’s rules required swimsuits to be made entirely out of more traditional fabrics. (Since FINA declared the LZRs legal, Speedo’s competitors are scrambling to get their own PU-enhanced suits completed.) Though the suit does not provide buoyancy in the same way that a neoprene wetsuit does, there is a great deal of grousing about whether the large patches of PU alter swimmers’ buoyancy. I am not by any means a scientific observer, but I certainly feel like the Speedo suit improves my body position in the water.

Great swimmers use their technique and force to raise their hips high in the water while pressing their sternums toward the bottom of the pool, creating a long, lean line as they propel themselves forward. Lacking world-class technique and strength, I have always struggled to hold my lower body high in the water. But in the LZR Racer, beyond the reduced drag and the invigorating body massage of the fabric, I have the distinct impression that my hips are higher and my stroke more efficient. Are my hips being pulled up by the elastic fabric or being floated up by displacement where the PU patches were? I can’t tell you. Head games count for a lot in competitive sports, of course. Whether my buoyancy is actually improved or whether the sum of the other efficiencies simply makes me feel more buoyant is hard to determine.

I should reiterate that the LZR is designed for the world’s fastest swimmers. My taking one out for a spin is as dilettantish as a go-kart dabbler borrowing a Formula One racecar for a test drive. The LZR Racer isn’t created for swimmers like me to make minor improvements. It was engineered to propel someone like Natalie Coughlin or Ian Crocker to records and medals.When all that stands between them and a gold medal (or more pessimistically, fourth place) is a hundredth of a second, any small refinement—in their VO2 max, in their flip turns, or in their super swimsuits—makes a huge difference.

No doubt I’m corrupted by the time we live in, but I don’t think such technological innovations are cheating. To the uninitiated, swimming might have the air of a nontechnological sport, as unadulterated as some nearly naked bodies against the water and the watch. To go faster, athletes need to train harder and fix their biomechanics, which after hundreds of thousands of practice strokes have often locked into bad habits. (With every lap, I say to myself “elbows higher,” but my arms still splay wide.) But despite that pure vision, swimmers have long been assisted by technological breakthroughs: The designs of pools, lane dividers, and starting blocks have made a difference, as have ever-tighter, more compressive swimsuits. Outsized, drug-inflated muscles weren’t the only thing that shocked the world about the East German swimmers in the ‘70s. As this amazing 1974 Sports Illustrated story demonstrates, so did their ultra-tight, unlined suits “made of a membranelike rubberized knit called Lycra.”

Hopefully all elite swimmers will have the chance to exploit the latest advances. In Beijing, I’ll be surprised to see more than a handful of top swimmers who are willing to compete without LZR suits. (If a swimmer is not sponsored by Speedo, he or she can get one at a discount from a coach; all American swimmers will get one thanks to Speedo’s team sponsorship.) Frankly, if I were still competing on the masters circuit, I’d be tempted to slap down some money just to see if the suit could help me get my times close to my high-school personal bests. Besides price, my main hesitation would be looking like a gear-happy jackass on the pool deck at a meet.

But these days I swim more for pleasure and less for speed—on my latest lake swim, I went without the LZR and felt pretty good. Maybe my hips were a little lower, and I wasn’t so speedy, but my neck wasn’t chafing, and I liked the feel of the water as it trickled over my own skin—and not a synthetic skin developed in a NASA wind tunnel.