For Amateur Swimmers, the Cost of Success Does Not Suit Everyone
Sunday, November 9, 2008
The futuristic swimsuits worn last summer by nearly every competitor at the Beijing Olympics, most notably Michael Phelps, are generating an aquatic version of class warfare as college and high school swim seasons get underway.
The sleek, long-length suits, which are widely believed to enhance performance although no testing has proven it, can cost more than $500 each and have to be replaced after a few meets. Many collegiate coaches and parents of promising young swimmers don't have the budgets for the suits. But they fear their kids will be hindered without them.
"It's pretty clear-cut," Georgetown Coach Steven Cartwright said. "You're going to have a situation of haves and have-nots. You have athletic departments that can afford these suits and athletic departments that can't. That's the reality of it."
The outfits gained popularity as Phelps and other elite swimmers set nearly 80 world records while wearing them this year. Though the suits have been around in various forms for about a decade, the newest versions have been so wildly successful they now are considered a virtual necessity for serious swimmers at every level of the sport.
"The suits, obviously, are fantastic," American University Coach Mark Davin said. "It's not really debatable anymore."
What is up for debate is whether the suits should be allowed at amateur competitions. Opponents argue that the suits are burdening collegiate programs that already are financially strapped, and could force economically stressed families to choose other sports for their children. Others counter that the suits have become as entrenched in swimming as goggles and represent no different an advancement than better golf clubs; they say restricting them would be shortsighted.
Almost everyone agrees that, until they are restricted or banned, the fastest suits will be in high demand.
"If a program has the money, it's going to go out and get" the suits, Howard Coach Paul VanLieShout said. "If they don't, they're foolish. But most programs don't have that kind of money. Most of us are hoping to put our kids in suits [at] about 20 percent of that cost."
Indeed, collegiate swimmers from Howard to George Mason to Virginia opened their seasons in recent weeks sporting traditional Lycra suits rather than the coveted long versions. VanLieShout and other area coaches called the suits cost-prohibitive and said they haven't ordered them. Others said they exceeded their anticipated budgets by $4,000 to $20,000 to buy the latest suits, but would use them only at a few end-of-season championship meets because they wear out quickly.
The suits even are appearing at the youth and high school levels, coaches and parents say. Many of the top competitors at the recent state high school championships in Arizona wore Speedo's LZR Racer, the model worn by Phelps during the Olympics. Jon Rogers, the aquatics director for Georgetown Prep and owner of the Aqua Hoya Swim Club, speculated that about half of the region's high school swimmers would show up to end-of-season championships in January and February wearing some version of the LZR, which retails for as much as $550.
"Financially, some families can't afford it," Rogers said. "It's going to become a big issue."
Brady Fox, an All-Met selection and Georgetown Prep senior, said he purchased an LZR during last summer's Olympic trials, when all participants were given the chance to buy them at a significant discount. He said he wore the suit at a summer league all-star meet and planned to wear it again at the Metros championships.
"I know a few kids who are pre-ordering them," Fox said. "But they are just so expensive I don't see everyone having them . . . I figured I would eventually buy it for $550, so why not take it for $200?"
USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body, in late September banned the suits at sanctioned events for athletes 12 years old and younger, citing cost and other concerns, but the National Federation of State High School Associations has taken no action, noting there is no scientific proof the suits provide a competitive advantage. For the same reason, a moratorium on the latest technical suits was lifted in September by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The circumstantial evidence of performance enhancement, however, is significant, especially with the LZR. An astonishing 77 swimming world records were set before and during the Beijing Olympics this year, 71 by athletes wearing some version of the LZR, according to Speedo publicists.
"I have, certainly, mixed feelings on the suits," said George Mason Coach Peter Ward, a member of the NCAA Men's and Women's Swimming and Diving Rules Committee. "The suits are here, and I think they are here to stay, but I think we need to look at ways to be able to use the suits" more effectively.
A major problem is the short shelf life of the best versions. Designed to compress the muscles, the suits are made of a light and tight fabric that gets stretched out after a few races. Some compare it to what happens to women's pantyhose; once the elasticity is lost and holes form, the suit becomes worthless. Fox said he expected to wear his LZR for perhaps three meets.
Stu Isaac, Speedo's senior vice president of sports marketing and team sales, said the company offered its more than 400 sponsor schools a 40 percent discount on the LZR suits for conference championships and a 65 percent discount for the NCAA championships. The discount, he said, would make the suits only about 15 percent more costly than Speedo's previous model.
Several coaches said the discounts would allow them to outfit their teams in LZR suits for approximately $300 per swimmer.
"We're trying to work with colleges to control their costs and our costs," Isaac said. "We're sensitive to concerns, sensitive to costs [and] sensitive to: Will we ever get to the point of making the technology too dominant?"
Ward said the deep discounts made it possible for George Mason to order Speedo's LZR for only about $4,000 more than it paid for the previous generation of Speedo suits. That figure, he said, was "pretty affordable."
But LZR suits cost another large Division I program $20,000, in part because prior models of the suits had been provided for free as part of a sponsorship program that Speedo discontinued when it introduced the LZR, according to an official at the top-ranked program. The official declined to be identified for fear of affecting the school's relationship with Speedo.
"Even with the discount, which is huge, they are still costing a fortune," the official said. "I'm concerned about that. The last thing we need is to lose programs. We certainly don't want to see universities lose teams over suits."
VanLieShout said he didn't spend much time plugging figures into a calculator to estimate the price of outfitting his team because the program's entire equipment budget for the season was $2,500. The most highly regarded technical suits, he said, were not an option. George Washington Coach Dan Rhinehart also said his program's budget would not accommodate the new models.
"I'm not sure of the exact price," Rhinehart said. "All I know is I can't afford them."
Davin, the American University coach, said he made other program cuts to squeeze in $10,000 for LZR suits.
"That's a huge portion of our budget, a gigantic portion," Davin said. "It means we're going to have to not do other things."
Rhinehart said some coaches have tackled the problem by ordering a small number of suits, say six or seven, with the intention of sharing them among entire teams of swimmers. Meantime, individual swimmers whose schools decline to order the suits and have the means to buy them are doing so, coaches say.
Phil Whitten, the executive director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America, said about 60 percent of college coaches are opposed to the technical suits, according to an e-mail poll completed last week. But Tracy Huth, the chair of the NCAA swimming and diving rules committee, said the issue likely would not be formally reexamined before next summer.
And that means many swimmers -- at a meet or two this season -- seemingly will be racing effortlessly in high-tech suits while their colleges or parents labor to afford them.
"If you have a six-figure budget, you can afford those suits," Howard's VanLieShout said. "The overwhelming majority of us don't."