New Suit Makes Splash in Debut

Kate Ziegler initially held off from wearing the new suit. She finally gave it a try and shattered the world record in the 1,500 meters by nearly 10 seconds.
Kate Ziegler initially held off from wearing the new suit. She finally gave it a try and shattered the world record in the 1,500 meters by nearly 10 seconds. (By Kristen Boisen -- Associated Press)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The world's best swimmers talk about Speedo's new suit like it's some sort of superhero costume. Wear it, they said, and you're immediately transformed. You shoot off walls like a cannonball. You never feel wet. You glide through the water weightlessly, as if naked.

Michael Phelps wore the suit for the first time in February, and he set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly even though he hadn't bothered to shave his chest or his scraggly goatee. Kate Ziegler tried the suit on a whim in June, and broke swimming's oldest record -- Janet Evans's 1988 mark in 1,500-meter freestyle -- by almost 10 seconds.

"I don't think the suit took off all 10 seconds," Ziegler said. "But it definitely made a difference."

In the six months since its release, the Fastskin FS-Pro has already impacted dozens of national and international swimming records. Made from a new fabric conceptualized by Speedo, the FS-Pro offers a combination once believed to be impossible: It weighs less than half as much as most standard swimsuits yet maintains the muscle compression of a heavy body wrap. Swimmers will wear it and likely break more records this week at the national championships in Indianapolis.

"It has become a landmark suit in the history of swimming," said Mark Schubert, head coach of USA Swimming. "It's probably the biggest jump in technology since the mid-1970s, when we switched over from baggy nylon suits to form-fitting ones. It's hard to overstate the difference here."

Speedo began creating the suit two years ago, when it asked a small Italian fabric shop to experiment with weaving a combination of spandex and nylon yarn. The weave that resulted felt almost like a windbreaker when dry, and its performance during early testing stunned Speedo executives. The fabric, patented and dubbed LZR Pulse, weighed 70 percent less than other swimsuits but showed 15 percent better compression. It retained almost no water. Speedo's previous suit, the Fastskin, took 16 hours to dry after one hour in the water; the FS-Pro only needed 45 minutes.

To shape the fabric into a swimsuit, Speedo took body scans of 400 elite swimmers. Stu Isaac, the company's vice president, took the suit to national team practices and passed it around for testing. The company designed a handful of different versions -- pants only, pants with shoulder straps, a complete body suit -- and priced the suits from $150 to $350. The designers unveiled their creation at a news conference in February, after 15 months of work.

"Swimming is at the point now where these kids are going so fast that just a tiny, tiny, minute detail can have a very noticeable impact on outcome," said Rick Sharp, an exercise physiologist at Iowa State University who helped create the FS-Pro. "We thought this suit could give swimmers a microscopic advantage, but we didn't know exactly how much."

In less than a week, the suit built its mystique. Phelps set his unanticipated world record at a small event in Columbia, Mo., and said afterward that it felt like he was "just exploding off the walls." Six weeks later, at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, U.S. swimmers set 21 national records in the FS-Pro. Twelve world records were established by those wearing the suit.

At the world championships, 76 percent of all athletes who wore the FS-Pro swam a personal-best time. Only 18 percent of swimmers who wore anything else managed to do the same. One competitor, Netherlands sprinter Pieter van den Hoogenband, violated his endorsement contract with Nike and wore the FS-Pro for his events in Melbourne, using black tape to obscure the Speedo logo.

"Right now, absolutely everybody wants to wear this thing," said Isaac, the Speedo executive.

About a year out from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, most international coaches insist their swimmers try the FS-Pro because it yields a double benefit: The suit itself propels swimmers through the water faster; because athletes believe they will go faster, they swim with increased confidence.

"Every time I put on that suit, I know I'm going to fly," said Ryan Lochte, who set a world record in the 200-meter backstroke at the world championships. "I've been swimming constantly for like 15 years, and I've never felt this good in the water. It's super thin, and it keeps you floating. If you try that suit once, you're never going to put anything else on."

It took Ziegler longer than anybody to try the FS-Pro. The distance freestyler from Great Falls has never liked to wear suits that cover her legs, and she only tried on the FS-Pro during a practice after months of nagging from her coaches. She was the only Speedo-sponsored swimmer who opted not to wear the FS-Pro at the world championships. "I just didn't believe it could be that good," Ziegler said. "I thought it was overrated. I was just being rebellious."

Three months after the world championships, at the TYR Meet of Champions in Mission Viejo, Calif., Ziegler asked her coach, Ray Benecki, if she should try the 1,500-meter freestyle in an FS-Pro.

"Why not?" Benecki said. "We're just having fun. Let's see what happens."

Ziegler emerged from the water 15 minutes 42.54 seconds later, having shattered the world record. Her legs had never gone numb, as they often did during the 1,500. She felt strong until the finish, free from the full-body fatigue that usually follows a distance race.

"I'll probably wear it in all competition from now on," Ziegler said. "It basically feels like a second skin."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company