More Questions Than Answers at Swimming World Championships
Records, Debate Over Swimsuits Overshadow Competition

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

ROME, Aug. 2 -- When it was all over, when the last of the 43 world records had fallen at the Foro Italico during the eight-day swimming world championships, it was remarkable how little anybody actually learned. As swimmers in glossy polyurethane bodysuits obliterated virtually all of the sport's records, times became meaningless, and achievements hazy and unclassifiable.

This "will be remembered," USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert said, "as the plastic meet."

Consider Sunday's results. As Michael Phelps collected his fifth gold medal and third world record here with the U.S. 4x100-meter individual medley relay team victory in 3 minutes 27.28 seconds, it wasn't merely the U.S. squad that went under the previous world record.

The second-place Germans, third-place Australians and fourth-place Brazilians did, too

The meet obliterated the previous record of 29 world bests set at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, now known for the dominance of the steroid-enhanced East German swimmers. The long-length swimsuits that emerged as textile novelties in 2000 became high-tech weapons over the past 18 months and stole the headlines here.

"It is a game this year, and you're forced to play it," said American Christine Magnuson, who swam in four events but did not win any of the U.S. team's 22 medals overall, its lowest total since it won 20 in 1994. "It's kind of sad. Overall, I don't think the athletes are very happy right now."

More than 170 world records have been broken since the start of 2008, when the launch of Speedo's LZR set off the technological arms race. The suits, however, will never be seen at a major championship again. In response to the outcry over the most recent suits' obvious performance-enhancement, FINA, the sport's world governing body, announced it will ban long-length, non-textile suits next year.

But what happens to the swimmers who emerged here as stars is another matter entirely. Will they, too, disappear?

Did Germany's Paul Biedermann, who in the words of Phelps "destroyed" Phelps in the 200 freestyle while setting his second world record in three days, establish himself as one of the world's best swimmers? Or was it the suit? How about American Ariana Kukors, who set two world records in the 200 medley, an event in which she finished third at the U.S. championships three weeks prior?

And what to make of American Mary DeScenza, a working-class swimmer who failed to make the U.S. Olympic team last year, but set a world record in the morning heats of the 200 butterfly?

What does any of it mean?

"I don't think anyone really knows," said Sean Hutchison, the U.S. women's team coach who grew up in Columbia and attended Centennial High. "Only time will tell who is going to survive without the suits. . . . Some people who are the best in the world may just fall off and never be heard from again.

"Yes, I think there will be a shake-up."

Some swimmers here -- mainly those setting the records in the fastest suits -- postulated that nothing will change, that the athletes who swam fast in long-length suits will be fast, relatively speaking, without the suits, too.

But some coaches and athletes contend that might not be so. Because the newest suits increase buoyancy, among other aids, swimmers are able to pay less attention to their body position in the water while focusing on other things, such as applying pure power with their arms.

"I believe that different people get different benefits from the suits," Hutchison said. "A lot of people have things to prove."

Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, said the high-tech suits have changed the way the sprint freestyle strokes have been swum, pushing swimmers to try a power-oriented, straight-armed freestyle since they don't have to do as much work keeping themselves afloat. Take away the suits, he said, and you coach the stroke differently.

Many agreed.

"I just think it's going to level the playing field a lot more," Schubert said. "We're going to be able to tell who the real swimmers are."

Some swimmers said they hated the suits, even though they were available to competitors here for free. Athletes under contract to companies whose suits were not highly regarded in some cases tried to surreptitiously switch to the supposedly fastest suits -- most swimmers here preferred the Jaked 01 and the Arena X-Glide -- wearing them with the suit manufacturers' names blacked out.

Swimmers also complained it took 20 to 25 minutes merely to put on the extremely tight-fitting suits, affecting their race preparation. And because tighter suits are figured to be faster suits, since they are said to compress the muscles more, a number of swimmers chose suits that were too small, and the swimmers literally burst out of them.

No incident was more embarrassing than what happened to American Ricky Berens on the first morning of competition. Moments before he was scheduled to swim the morning heats of the 4x100 freestyle relay, Berens bent over and his suit split in the back, exposing a large portion of his derriere. He competed anyway and his grandchildren surely will see the photos on the Internet.

"I feel like they sewed these suits together with Elmer's superglue and a hot iron," said David Walters, who took Phelps's American record in the 100 free here and anchored the U.S. medley relay Sunday night. "They come apart."

Some swimmers said they were embarrassed to wear the suits, but saw no reasonable alternative. Amanda Weir, who broke Natalie Coughlin's American record in the 100 free, exchanged her old Tyr for a Jaked 01 for these championships.

"I'm wearing a suit," Weir said last week, "that I hope will be made illegal as soon as possible."

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