Swimmers and coaches feared the U.S. swimming championships in Indianapolis last week would be a high-tech farce, taken over by ordinary swimmers helped to surprising victories by technologically over-the-top swimsuits. But while the newest suits proved enormously popular and successful for many swimmers, they didn’t throw the competition into chaos.
An unofficial analysis of last week’s event shows that 72 percent of athletes who reached the 26 event finals, and whose suits could be identified, competed in recently released versions made by Jaked, Arena, Tyr or BlueSeventy. Yet swimmers wearing older models — in most cases because of contractual obligations to the company Speedo — won more gold and silver medals than athletes in other suits and therefore earned more qualifying spots for the upcoming world championships in Rome.
About 33 percent of U.S. gold and silver medal winners wore Speedo’s LZR, the acclaimed suit of last year that is now perceived as out-moded, compared to about 25 percent for Jaked, 24 percent for Arena models, 9 percent for Tyr and 8 for BlueSeventy.
“I don’t think it’s a slow suit at all for me,” said Cullen Jones, who wore the LZR to set an American record in a swim-off for second place in the 50-meter freestyle after wearing a Jaked01 in the final. “When I jump off the blocks, I feel like I’m in a much tighter line. At the same time, when I get tired, suits that help me float, I like that, too.”
Not only are the most advanced new suits tight-fitting and designed to make swimmers slip faster through the water, but many are also impermeable and buoyant, helping with flotation.
The brand of suits on 29 of the 208 finalists and two of the 52 first- and second-place finishers at the U.S. championships could not be determined.
The controversy over the long-length suits, which has simmered in recent years, blew up a month ago when the world governing body of swimming, FINA, reversed course on plans to restrict the increasingly high-tech suits at the July 26-Aug. 2 world championships.
In anticipation of the promised clamp-down, Speedo did not create a more advanced suit this year. When FINA decided to approve 400 suits from more than two dozen manufacturers for this summer, athletes under contract with Speedo flew into near-panic.
Despite the hubbub, Michael Phelps, Speedo’s highest-paid athlete, wore his Speedo LZR and won three titles while also breaking a four-year-old world record. Jones, a Nike-sponsored athlete, swapped the Jaked for the LZR, and Ryan Lochte and Dana Vollmer each won two finals while wearing LZRs.
There were other hints that the suits did not disrupt the competition as feared: Three world records were set, all by men who had set them previously. The total was arguably lower than expected at such a critical meet.
That’s not to say the newest of the high-tech suits did not have a major impact. About a half-dozen of the U.S. team’s biggest stars did not compete or were not in top form, so although international marks did not fall in abundance, the meet was ripe with personal bests and, in some cases, phenomenal drops in times from less accomplished athletes.
Many said they did not like the new suits but that they felt compelled to try to get every advantage they could. Plenty did. Aaron Peirsol, who set two world records, wore Arena’s new X-Glide suit, as did Eric Shanteau, who set two American records in the 200-meter breaststroke, and Rebecca Soni, who won a pair of breaststroke events. Nathan Adrian won the 50- and 100-meter freestyle in the coveted Jaked01.
More finalists at the U.S. championships — about 27 percent — wore Jaked than any other brand.
“FINA has put us in a very difficult situation,” said Dara Torres, a Speedo-contracted swimmer who wore a Jaked01 to win the women’s 50 free. “It’s unfortunate they kept going back and forth, back and forth on their decision. They should have just stuck with one thing. Now, it makes it tough for swimmers to decide what to do.”
Many of the athletes who wore the newest suits did so almost apologetically.
“Obviously, the suits help,” Shanteau said. “That’s more than obvious. But I have definitely put in the work.”
Despite being a Speedo-sponsored athlete, Lochte said he had tested out all of the new suits. The Jaked, he said, worked particularly well on the underwater portion of races, such as starts and while coming off the walls. The Arena, he said, was the opposite, doing more to keep the swimmer above the water.
But Lochte, who won the 200 and 400 medleys in the LZR, said he actually preferred his old suit to the newer models.
“Everybody’s all hyping the new Arena, the new Jaked” suits, he said. “I’m kind of trying to stick it to them.”