Last Saturday proved an intense training day among the professional swimmers that train under Eddie Reese at the University of Texas. As they prepared for next week’s U.S. championships in Indianapolis, Reese stood on the pool deck with a stopwatch, clocking lap after lap as Olympians Aaron Peirsol, Eric Shanteau and Garrett Weber-Gale raced up and down the pool.
They weren’t, though, working on technique or form or anything having to do with actual swimming. They were trying out different varieties of the latest high-tech swimsuits approved last week for use at this summer’s world championships.
It was something of a judgment day among the swimmers, as each tried to figure out which now-legal — but still highly controversial — suit most aided his performance.
Reese, the head men’s coach on last year’s U.S. Olympic swimming team, can barely stomach what is happening. Yet he wants to ensure his swimmers have every possible advantage as they enter the meet that will determine who represents the United States at the world championships in Rome later this month.
“It’s a mess,” Reese said by phone from Austin. “The suit issue is like nothing I’ve ever seen in the sport. You’re going to have people going to our world championship trials, putting on a suit there that they’ve never seen, and hoping it works.”
He and other U.S. coaches have been openly disdainful of last week’s decision by the sport’s world governing body (FINA) to approve 400 suits, some of which were originally rejected and have produced mind-boggling drops in times.
Though USA Swimming voiced its “disappointment” with FINA’s ruling, it decided to allow all of the suits at the U.S. championships that begin Tuesday.
In the wake of that decision, American athletes who had been largely comfortable with the suits they wore at last summer’s Olympics plunged either into a frenzy of suit-analysis or a pit of fear. Many have tried to get their hands on the latest, most technically advanced new suits. Others, largely for contract reasons, are bound to older models but well aware of the world records being set weekly across the globe. They are concerned they are being left behind.
Without the suits, “you would have picked the fastest and fittest team,” Reese said. “Now, if someone doesn’t pick the right suit, we can end up with people who did a better job of selecting a suit. That’s scary.”
Reese said his athletes tried out many of the cutting-edge new suits from Jaked, blueseventy, adidas and Tyr during their recent testing. Speedo, which set off the technological race when it introduced the LZR Racer last year, does not have a new product to rival the more controversial ones introduced in recent months.
Mark Schubert, USA Swimming’s National Team Head Coach, said during a conference call Wednesday that U.S. officials did not consider restricting the suits at the U.S. championships. They believed athletes should be allowed to wear whatever approved suits they wished — as long as they were commercially and readily available.
Even so, Schubert said, he doesn’t like the direction the sport has taken.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that some world records have been broken over the last two years are due to the athletes, and some world records are more due to the suits,” Schubert said. “I don’t think a world record should be because of a suit … I just don’t think we’ve been good stewards of the sport to allow what has happened.”
Swimming insiders speculate that some of the sport’s biggest stars might be the most negatively affected. Many top athletes—including 14-time Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps—have deals with Speedo, which in less than a year went from the company at the forefront of the technology to one stuck with a seemingly archaic product.
Katie Hoff, also a Speedo-sponsored athlete who trains along with Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, said she and Phelps haven’t tried any other suits. They are not experimenting. She is, however, worrying. Every time she hears about another stunning world record in another super-advanced suit, she said, she second-guesses her approach.
“Everyone wants to be on an even playing field when they step on the blocks,” said Hoff, a three-time Olympic medalist, during a phone interview. “Based on everything that’s been happening, I honestly don’t think that’s going to be the case at the trials or the world championships … It’s frustrating and confusing.”
Hoff said she doesn’t want to race in a suit that will act, in effect, as a flotation device. Yet she fears her rivals will, and that her approach is naïve.
Next week’s “is going to be a very interesting meet,” she said. “I don’t know what to expect at all … It’s a mess, even for the athletes wearing the suits. Look at the position [FINA is] putting everyone in. People feel like they have no choice. They are backed into a corner.”
Bowman, who is paid by Speedo, has argued that Speedo’s LZR is among the technically advanced suits that is not over-the-top in its performance-enhancement. He said Phelps and others might be at a disadvantage against “people [who] are just putting on a polyurethane suit and calling it progress.”
Dara Torres, who competed in her fifth Olympics last summer at age 41, said she doesn’t like the high-tech suits but will consider all of the products available for the U.S. championships.
“Some of these suit manufacturers have done an awesome job of creating swimsuits, but it seems like we’re years ahead of where we should be, and I personally wouldn’t mind going back to the old-school days,” Torres said during Wednesday’s conference call, “and then you could really see who the fast swimmers are.”