High-tech suits, Phelps, bring high drama to swimming, again

This computer image released by NASA was used in development of the Speedo LZR Racer, a swim suit that helped break records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but will be banned in 2010 under new FINA regulations.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
Germany's Paul Biedermann celebrates after winning the gold medal of the Men's 200m Freestyle at the FINA World Championships in Rome on Tuesday.

'Swimmers, take your launchpads.'

Remember at last's summer Olympic games, when muscle-compressing body suits caused such an uproar because of the advantage they gave swimmers? Twenty-five swimming world records fell at the Beijing games. The sport's purists were not pleased.

This summer, at Rome's World Championships, the storyline is similar, only the one calling "DQ" is none other than swimming golden boy Michael Phelps.

In Beijing, Speedo's LZR Racer ruled the pool. Its strategically placed panels reduced drag and made wearers look like they were headed for the bottom of the ocean rather the other side of the pool. New suits from manufacturers Jaked and Arena are covered in a polyurethane coating that helps swimmers cut through the water and may increase buoyancy – and speed. (And, apparently, their susceptibility to tearing. Yikes.)

Phelps, still wearing the LZR Racer, on Tuesday took second in the 200 meter freestyle to German Paul Biedermann, a swimmer who, without the polyurethane suit, hadn't figured in competition.

Alan Boyle's breakdown of the swim suit tech war for MSNBC is a good read for anyone wanting to understand the history and some of the science behind the controversial suits.

The New York Times' Karen Crouse recounted the chaos present on the pool deck with some swimmers using the new polyurethane suits while others are stuck with older models.

On Wednesday, Mark Schubert, the general manager of USA Swimming, said a member of the women’s team – no doubt wondering how she is supposed to succeed in last year’s suits when the seemingly invincible Phelps could not – hunted him down and pleaded for one of this year’s models, saying she couldn’t take it any longer.

FINA, the sport's governing body, approved a ban for 2010 on all high-tech bodysuits in the sport Tuesday. Under new FINA regulations, bodysuits are out. Men's suits can't extend above the navel or below the top of the knees. Women's models can't have sleeves or extend below the knees. But FINA indicated that it might take months for its panel of scientists to set out the terms of the ban, and for manufacturers to catch up.

The delay upset USA Swimming men's coach Bob Bowman so much that he threatened to keep Phelps from swimming until the ban was in place. FINA had better "do something or they're going to lose their guy who fills these seats," Bowman told the Associated Press.

Phelps, unfazed by Tuesday's loss, swam to a world record time in the 200m butterfly Wednesday.

Asked about Bowman's plan to hold him from competition if FINA's changes aren't implemented quickly, Phelps was trusting of his coach and focused on the 2012 Olympic Games in London. "Bob chooses where I swim. He chooses the meets I'm going to swim in. He chooses what's right for me and what's right for my training," Phelps said. "I have one meet that I'm looking forward to the most and that's in three years."


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