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A Major Eye Roll for Leaky Goggles

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

He churned into the wall in his $550 swimming suit and his two -- two!-- aerodynamic caps, only to look downright peeved: In his fourth Olympic-gold race, Michael Phelps had bested the world record by a measly three-hundredths of a second.

Later he explained the petulance. Phelps, rippling specimen of exacting training and futuristic technology, was the victim of his goggles.

The Speed Sockets had leaked, and he could barely see for the last 100 meters of his Wednesday butterfly race.

His goggles!

The stupid hunks of rubber and plastic that retail at $30 tops, because it's virtually impossible to improve them beyond that price point.

And then, the next day, in the 200-meter individual medley semifinal, he touches the wall, gets that look, lifts his goggles and -- unbelievable! -- water leaks out again.

Michael Phelps felled by his off-the-shelf goggles is like LeBron James tripping on a shoelace, like Shawn Johnson missing a landing because of a wedgie. Only, those things wouldn't happen because inventions like lace clips and spray adhesive have made nearly every aspect of sport into science.

And still, those leaky goggles, plaguing even the most polished of swimmers.

"I assumed it was his goggles before anyone had said anything," says Jack Roach, a coach who has assisted in training Phelps and who watched the race on television.

"It was the way they were up on his head," says Summer Sanders, a former Olympian who won two golds in the 1992 Games.

"The only thing more frustrating would have been if they'd flipped down over his mouth," says Sanders. "Because then you have to wait for your turn, touch the wall and flick them off at the same time."

Swimmers are an obsessive bunch. Men shave their legs. Racers on starting blocks flap or windmill their arms a precise number of times (three for Phelps). Such ritualistic behaviors are necessary for a sport that is decided in hundredths of a second and occurs in a substance that humans only recently have learned not to drown in.

Goggles have their own rites. They are spat in and splashed on (defogging and luck), knotted and tucked under caps (to reduce drag). And then they are crammed so tightly into eye sockets that Robert Oppenheimer himself could not force an atom between goggle and skin. Freestyler Katie Hoff wears her goggle obsession on her forehead, literally; those dark circles above her eyebrows are purple evidence.

In a sport in which aquatic engineers fret over lane rope baffling design to prevent water churn, it would seem someone should have invented something more foolproof by now. Like, what about surgical goggle implants? Inserted just below the brow bone? They could be retractable, emerging only when the swimmer came within six feet of chlorine, and bonding to the skin below the eye. What? Bet those Chinese girl gymnasts would wear them if they needed to. Dedication, people, dedication.

Matthew Webb wore goggles to swim the English Channel in 1875, says Phil Whitten, former editor of Swimming World Magazine. Most people don't know that. His were made of wood and glass. Goggles didn't enter competitive swimming until the early 1970s -- before that, FINA, the governing body for the sport of swimming, considered them an unfair advantage. cough LZR cough. Even when they were legalized, manly men of the hirsute variety (Mark Spitz) elected to go bare-eyed.

How far goggles have come. Double straps, interchangeable nose pieces, mirrored lenses, all designed to maximize comfort and prevent slippage. You have the TYR Socket Rocket, promising 180-degree peripheral vision under water. You have Nike's Swift Strapless Swim, two individual cups that eliminate the strap and nose pieces for drag reduction. The Raceview model, by Speedo, has angled lenses that claim to boost performance by "promoting proper head alignment and body position."

They can all still slip and leak.

Speedo spokeswoman Carrie Grandits seemed surprisingly unperturbed by her product's poor performance on the world stage, on the head of her company's most galvanizing endorser, as tens of millions watched.

"We're as curious as you are" about why it happened to Phelps, Grandits says from New York. Could be that he forgot to tighten them, could be the way he dived in, she says. "If it were really a defective pair, he would have known it from the get-go."

"If he had lost," she adds, "we'd probably be more focused on it."

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