The first time Andrew McGehee put on a Speedo LZR, he needed 10 minutes to fit himself in the skintight, rubber-like swimsuit. A stark change from the old-school Speedo briefs he had worn all his life, the LZR felt like a “really, really, really tight pair of pants.”
The Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club swimmer, 18, bought his high-tech suit last summer, after watching Michael Phelps and company break records and win Olympic medals wearing the LZR. Soon, the suits began popping up at local pools, and on the starting blocks at meets such as the Potomac Valley Swimming Long Course Senior Championships, which begin today at the University of Maryland.
The PVS Championships bring out the region’s best, and this year, many swimmers competing in the meet feel they need to wear the best to beat the best.
“Everyone feels like they can go faster in one,” Curl-Burke swimmer Alex Doonis, 15, said. “You see all the faster times [with the high-tech suits] and you say, ‘Hey, if I try this, I can swim faster, too.’.”
Though the most common suits among PVS swimmers are the Speedo Fastskin FSII and FS-Pro and the BlueSeventy Nero, which are no longer worn at the professional level because they have been replaced by faster models, the Speedo LZR is quickly becoming the go-to suit among PVS’s elite swimmers. It is an abrupt leap for parents unaccustomed to spending so much money on swimsuits.
“The typical high-end suit went from $100 with the Fastskin to $300 with the FSII and FS-Pro, and then all of a sudden, in the past year, it jumped to $550 for a swimsuit,” said Bob York, who owns Aardvark Swim and Sport owner in Chantilly.
Still, the LZR’s $500-plus price tag and the fact that its benefits are said to diminish considerably after five swims are no deterrents for parents who feel they need to “keep up with the Joneses” at the pool.
“If they’re the only one up there — if seven have the tech suits and one doesn’t — it’s a huge mental disadvantage,” said Erin Vincent, mother of Curl-Burke swimmer Taylor Vincent, 13.
Donna Wittenauer, whose son Chase Wittenauer, 17, also swims at Curl-Burke, agreed.
“There are tremendous amounts of kids wearing these suits,” she said, “and it does give them an advantage, so we needed to give my son that advantage also.”
Robbye Fox, mother of RMSC swimmer Brady Fox, 18, said the competitive nature of sports can leave parents feeling as if they have no choice.
“Parents don’t want to be the reason their kids are held back from achieving,” Robbye Fox said. “I wouldn’t want ‘We didn’t buy him a suit’ to be the reason why he didn’t achieve something.”
Worried parents have consulted one another at PVS and summer swim league meets about the suits.
“We’re all asking each other and talking about it, because we think we should go get them,” said Astou Gould, mother of RMSC swimmer Serge Gould, 16. “Who doesn’t want their child to improve?”
Even the lower-tier suits are costly. On Speedo’s Web site, the Fastskin FSII retails for $320 for a men’s hi-neck bodyskin. The same model for the FS-Pro retails for $340. But while those are expensive, they are affordable options compared to the next tier of high-tech suits. The BlueSeventy Nero men’s long-leg competition suit sells for $395 at BlueSeventy’s online store, while the Speedo LZR hi-neck bodyskin is $550 on the Speedo site. The LZR is recommended for just five to seven swims, and though swimmers often save the suit for major competitions, parents typically must buy a new one at least once a year.
At the middle levels of amateur swimming, the worth of these suits is debatable. The suits offer some physical advantages in the water. The material is designed to push water away from the swimmer, streamline the body, increase buoyancy and reduce drag. They can make all the difference in races that are won by one one-hundredth of a second. But at the PVS level, where races often are won by seconds, the difference is negligible.
However, swimmers feel the real edge provided by the high-tech suits is mental. Swimmers said they “felt faster” in the suits, even if there was no difference in times.
“I didn’t go any faster, but you feel faster, though,” Eric Ruggieri, 15, said. “All the suits are a lot more mental than physical, but it was kind of crazy how big of a difference it made.”
“These suits give them a mental edge,” Beverly McGehee, mother of RMSC swimmer Andrew McGehee said. “They feel like they’re going to do better, so it gives them confidence.”
Because the suits are so expensive, many swimmers receive them as gifts. Doonis received her LZR for her birthday. RMSC swimmer Ruggieri received his LZR as a gift from his grandmother. Kevin Vallario, 18, of the Flying Gulls Aquatic Club, received his BlueSeventy Nero as a Christmas gift.
“We asked what he wanted for Christmas, and he said he really wanted the suit,” Bob Vallario, Kevin’s father, said. “We said, ‘Well, then we can’t get you other things too,’ but all Kevin wanted was the suit.”
Many swimmers buy the LZR at a steep discount. Some local clubs, including RMSC and Curl-Burke, are sponsored by Speedo, enabling those swimmers who make the Junior Nationals squad to receive a 65 to 70 percent discount. For many parents, the price cut made a huge difference.
“I probably wouldn’t have bought it if we couldn’t get it for $150,” Heidi Harper, mother of Machine Aquatics swimmer Shannon Harper, 14, said. “I would have said no.”
For those swimmers who do not qualify for the discount, the cost is often too much.
“I’m not going to national meets, and they’re very expensive, so I’m going to stick with the FSII I have, because it helps me for what I need,” RMSC swimmer Joanna Ladas, 16, said.
Ladas added that she did not believe she was at a physical disadvantage because she did not wear the suit. “I don’t think it’s where I can win or lose a race,” she said.
Coaches are concerned that the rise of high-tech suits is creating what amounts to an arms race in the pool. RMSC Coach Mark Eldridge worries that the focus of swimming was shifting from athletes to suits.
“The accomplishments of these local swimmers are all being overshadowed by the fact that they might be wearing a particular bathing suit,” Eldridge said. “That’s a shame.”
Curl-Burke founder Rick Curl agreed.
“The suits are taking a lot of the focus away from a sport that didn’t usually rely on equipment for success,” Curl said.
Still, coaches endorse the suits to their swimmers in order to stay competitive.
“It used to be me against you, and now if I don’t have the suit, you have an advantage,” said York, who is also the founder of York Swim Club. “But as long as they make a faster suit, everyone is going to want one. You can’t let anyone have an advantage.”
York’s store sold out of the LZRs in two months, which he said is unheard of for such an expensive suit. Demand has not slowed. A new crop of high-tech polyurethane suits has recently been approved by FINA, the world governing body of swimming, and local swimmers foresee it trickling down to the amateur level soon. Parents might find themselves shopping again next year, as the once-esteemed LZR is now being replaced at the professional level by newer models that, in some cases, are not yet commercially available.
“The Arena [X-]Glide or the Jaked, those usually come out a few months after they come out at worlds, so we’ll probably see those in six months,” McGehee said. “PVS takes a while to catch on.”