In Olympian swimsuits, threads of history
The full-body LZR Racer is seen as a breakthrough in reducing drag. Suits have changed dramatically in recent decades.
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Meanwhile, as a survival skill and not as sport, native men in Africa, Polynesia and the Americas swam, using, research shows, the standard crawl stroke that Australians would claim centuries later as their own.Skip to next paragraph
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Through about the 1850s, Wigo says, his research shows men swam in the nude. As the Victorian period in England unfolded, women created a bloomerlike dress for bicycling that was soon adapted for swimming. They wore bonnets and their feet were covered.
Two events in the early 20th century altered women’s involvement with swimming. In 1904, the General Slocum, carrying about 1,000 church people, mostly women and children, sank on a cruise from Manhattan to Long Island. Most of the women died as they could not swim.
Soon after, Australian feminist, actress, and swimmer Annette Kellerman designed a black wool swimming suit for women that resembles a modern women’s unitard. Her arms were bare. Soon, she threw off the dark stockings. “Annette Kellerman was the Madonna of her period,” says Wigo. “She pushed the envelope.”
By 1912, women swimmers began competing in the newly established modern Olympics. But no American women participated until 1920.
By the 1960s, Speedo began developing nylon suits that were acknowledged to aid Olympians’ speed. By the 1960w and ’70s, men’s brief swimsuits were in style. In 1972, American Mark Spitz wore a red, white, and blue brief made of nylon elastine. It was supposed to have made him faster, en route to seven gold medals.
“You wanted to show as much skin as possible,” Wigo says. But, he notes, “When we went to these little suits, we alienated one-third of the planet, with Muslims and other religious [people] saying we shouldn’t be showing that much skin.”
(Swimwearmakers have more recently created “Muslim appropriate” swimwear for women, with their heads, arms, and legs covered, but in material that allows for swimming.)
Which takes us to the 21st century, where science meets litigation at the pool. Speedo and USA Swimming are being sued by TYR Sport Inc., which claims that the governing body and head Olympic coach Mark Schubert have favored Speedo over other swimwear makers. But in Omaha for these swim trials, it was all about the “touching the wall first,” no matter how challenging it is to get the darn things on.
“The LZR takes about 20 minutes to put on,” said Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals at the Athens Olympics and is expected to win more in Beijing. “It’s just incredibly tight, especially around the legs. You inch it up millimeter by millimeter.”
So why deal with it? “They tell me it’s better,” she says. “So I wear it.”
Tuesday, wearing the LZR Racer, Coughlin broke the world 100-meter backstroke record.
[Editor's note: The original version misidentified Michael Phelps.]