This was supposed to be the year of excruciatingly slow swimming. With the polyurethane bodysuits that led to dozens of world records now relegated to museum displays and garage sales, swimming insiders predicted times would balloon accordingly, by as much as 2 to 5 percent.
And in fact, some of the times rose substantially at the U.S. championships earlier this month. The average time among the top three men in the 200 fly, for example, stood 2.29 percent higher than in 2009 and 3.30 percent greater than 2008. No American records were set, and no one disputes this: The ban on the high-tech suits brought an emphatic and unquestioned halt to three wild years of world-record obliteration.
Yet American Ryan Lochte found himself within spitting distance of his own world record in the 200-meter individual medley and said he hopes to take it down at this week’s multi-nation Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif. Rebecca Soni and Michael Phelps also laid down times that left them within sight of the women’s 200 breaststroke and men’s 100 butterfly world marks.
American athletes and coaches say Lochte’s excellence and other strong performances at nationals offer evidence that the team’s best swimmers can close the gap more quickly than expected.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that long before we figure out how to repeat those [world record] times,” said Dana Vollmer, who will compete in the 100 and 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly at the Pan Pacs, which will feature 21 nations including charter countries Canada, Australia and Japan. “I would be expecting that [this week]. It’s been a goal of mine to go best times in every event even though I’m not in a suit. I wouldn’t put [world records] past people.”
Average times of the top three finishers in each event at the U.S. championships swelled by less than 1 percent compared to the times posted at last year’s world championship trials (0.80 percent), which featured most of the latest suit technology, and the 2008 Olympic trials (0.97 percent), which featured some of the top technology, according to a Washington Post review.
In a few events, the top competitors actually went faster.
“I almost broke my world record in the 200 IM,” Lochte said by phone from the team’s training camp in Irvine last week. “It can be done. I’m hoping [this] week. It’s just a matter of time.”
Swimmers and coaches say the supersuits did not merely increase athletes’ speed; they also taught them how to go faster — critical information some have already applied to their training.
Swimmers say the supersuits’ buoyancy essentially pushed athletes higher in the water, and their tightness effectively held everything in position, allowing swimmers to maintain excellent body position and tight streamlines almost effortlessly. That allowed them to use their energy to drive their arms, shoulders and legs.
And, just as important, the slippery suits also decreased resistance, which helped swimmers shoot more quickly off the walls on turns.
Ariana Kukors, who set the world record in the 200 medley last year, said the difference between her best of 2:06.15 and the 2:10.54 she swam at the U.S. championships largely resulted from her speed on the underwater portion of those races.
“The suits opened our eyes to a whole new realm of possibility,” Kukors said. “Everyone wants to get back to those times, to figure out how to get their bodies to do it.”
Indeed, once the suit ban went into effect in January, coaches, swimmers and USA Swimming officials tried to take the knowledge they gained and apply it strategically to workout plans. That meant veering away from traditional weight-training methods — which became popular in the supersuit era — and moving toward core-intensive strength programs, such as those provided by Pilates-type workouts.
It meant honing in on superior stroke technique and drills designed to build middle-body strength.
“The suits showed everybody just how beneficial it is to have that core stability and that strength, that line in the water,” Vollmer said. “It opened eyes to how much faster your swimming could be if you focused on those things.”
For the last seven months that focus has guided Lochte, who overshadowed the 14-time Olympic gold medalist Phelps at the U.S. championships for the first time in his career. Lochte beat Phelps in the 200 medley and won two other events, the 200 backstroke and 400 medley, while getting seconds in the 100 and 200 free. That meant he qualified for five individual events at the Pan Pacs; Phelps, who won the 200 free and 100 and 200 fly, only qualified in four.
Lochte’s coach, Gregg Troy, said he has never seen Lochte work harder than he has this year. Lochte not only bumped his weight workouts from three days to four, but he also changed the regimen to include more core-related work. And he worked to improve his upper-leg strength to strengthen his pushes off walls, an area in which he has long excelled.
“Without the suits, you don’t have that buoyancy anymore, so you actually really had to go back to work on your core,” Lochte said. “Without the suit, you have to be really slimmed and fit.”
The swimmers in Sean Hutchison’s USA Swimming-supported camp in Fullerton have done more dryland work with medicine balls, tension cords and other devices designed to strengthen their bodies’ central muscles, said Hutchison, who attended Oakton and Centennial high schools. They shifted away from strict and arm and leg presses with weights. USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert said that philosophy reflects the organization’s as a whole.
“We definitely prepared differently in terms of our focus this year,” Hutchison said. “We absolutely tried to take what we learned from the suits and develop it into the swimmers themselves.”
It’s difficult to make broadbrush generalizations about the impact of the suits on specific events, since times also have been heavily affected by the quality of the athletes competing from year to year. For example, one-time wunderkids Katie Hoff of Towson and distance star Kate Ziegler of Great Falls sank into slumps last year, which explains why times in events in which they competed (and once dominated) got worse, rather than faster, at the 2009 world championship trials.
Meantime, Phelps blamed his relatively poor performance in certain events at this year’s nationals on the fact he wasn’t in top shape.
Those and other athlete-specific developments seemingly influenced the times in some events as much as, or more than, the suits did.
But in at least one group of events, the women’s freestyles, a clear trend emerged during the U.S. championships. Across the board, female freestylers managed impressive swims. In the 100, 400 and 800 free, the winners went faster than the 2009 champions. In the 200 free, the top three went faster on average than the top three in ’09.
“I feel like the fly and the breast [strokes] got a lot more benefit from the fancy suits,” said Chloe Sutton, who won the 800 free for the second straight year, surpassing her 2009 time by nearly five seconds. “Those are the undulation strokes, the short-axis strokes where the hips and chest alternate position . . . [With those strokes] your body has more drag, and the suits reduce it so much.
“I fell like the freestyle was the one affected the least. With the long-axis strokes, there isn’t as much drag there.”
There is widespread agreement that the suits provided the least benefit to the very best swimmers, because the most accomplished instinctively did the things the suits were credited with helping even middling swimmers achieve. That fact suggests the sport’s stars have less ground to cover to reach their suit-enhanced times.
Lochte, who never opted for the most technologically advanced supersuits, said he actually prefers the textile jammer to the longer synthetic suits; it simply, he said, feels more comfortable.
Vollmer, who went faster in winning the 100 freestyle at this year’s national championships than she did in winning the title last summer, said she liked how her 2009 high-tech Jaked suit allowed her to slip easily through the water, but the buoyancy it provided interfered with her freestyle stroke.
“Putting on the suits altered [my] stroke and almost felt uncomfortable,” Vollmer said. “My underwaters felt amazing in the Jaked suit, but my swimming didn’t actually feel faster—it felt ‘off.’”
Last year’s world championships in Rome featured 43 world records. The Olympics in Beijing in 2008 produced 25 world records and the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, at which the newfangled suits began to emerge in force, produced 15 world marks.
Though U.S. swimmers can be expected to drop time this week’s international meet, the drops surely won’t be dramatic as after last summer’s U.S. world championships trials as swimmers got accustomed or, in some cases, switched to the highest-end speedsuits. Many were still trying to get their hands on the very latest technology at the 2009 U.S. championships.
If even a single world record were to fall this week at the Pan Pacific Championships, it would be very, very big news.
“Any world record that is broken now is going to be much more impressive,” said Gregg Troy, Lochte’s coach and the head U.S. men’s coach.
Yet Lochte hopes he has one in him. At the 2009 world meet, he topped the record Phelps set at the 2008 Summer Games with his time of 1:54.10.
Two weeks ago he hit 1:54.84.
“I was thrilled” when the suits were banned, Lochte said. “I was so happy. Finally, everybody would be playing on the same level. Now it’s up to the swimmer.”