Masters Swimmers Are Split on Full-Body Suits

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In the last month, bans levied on high-tech, full-body swimsuits at virtually every level of swimming have put the suits on the verge of extinction.

Yet many of the nearly 50,000 masters swimmers -- non-elite adult swimmers -- in the United States have no grudge with the suits and don't care to give them up just because they create an ethical dilemma when made available to 13-year-old age groupers.

The masters population includes older folks who appreciate full-body coverage for reasons that have nothing to do with speed, and an assortment of hard-core, dead-serious middle-agers who love to go faster than they did five years ago (and who cares how?).

Though many masters swimmers have adopted the mainstream position that the suits provide an over-the-top technical advantage and need to be banned, others contend there is no moral dilemma at the masters level. They argue that adults with disposable incomes and no chance of depriving anyone of a slot on an Olympic team should be free to enhance their performance with the best technology available.

The result: a U.S. governing body uncertain whether to fall in line with the rest of the swimming world in regulating the controversial suits.

"We don't know what our position is," said Kathy Casey, the chair of the U.S. Masters Swimming Rules Committee. "We're working on it, and there's a wide range of opinions out there that run the full gamut. It's a very emotional issue. Some want to keep using all of those suits. Some say, 'Absolutely not.' "

Casey said the USMS Rules Committee will study the issue in the coming weeks with the goal of making a recommendation to FINA, the sport's world governing body, before its masters technical committee meets this fall to consider implementing new suit rules. In a recent correspondence, Casey said, FINA told USMS that its recent decision to ban all full-body, high-tech suits in January 2010, did not apply to masters.

"Which leaves us between a rock and a hard place," Casey said. "I have no idea what recommendation our committee is going to make."

Masters officials realize they have to give serious consideration to restricting the suits if for no other reason than manufacturers, anticipating a drop in demand, have already been slashing production of their highest-tech models.

"A line has to be drawn somewhere," said Jeff Roddin, the registrar for the Potomac Valley Masters, which overseas masters swimming in the Washington region. "People disagree about where the line has to be drawn."

Introduced just before the 2000 Summer Games, full-body suits appealed immediately to masters swimmers, who compete locally, nationally and internationally at meets divided by age group (for example: women's 25-29, men's 50-54, women's 85-89). The suits didn't truly inflame purists until suit makers began using rubberized materials in the beginning of 2008. That's also when times began dropping dramatically.

Because of the many age divisions, there are more than a thousand masters world records. Hundreds have fallen in the last two years, but masters record books have not been rewritten as dramatically as those at the collegiate or elite level.

Some wearers of full-body suits at the masters level don't care whether they swim in old-fashioned lycra or high-tech polyurethane, they just want maximum coverage. For them, long-length suits offer more practical than performance benefits; they tuck away flab and paunches that youngsters don't have. They make older athletes sleeker, more attractive and comfortable than in traditional, itty-bitty suits.

"I'm 52 years old," said Traci Grilli, the USMS national office administrator. "You put this bathing suit on, it fits like a giant girdle, number one. Number two, it's faster in the water. I just did a personal best [at the U.S. masters championships in Indianapolis]. . . . Masters swimmers are very competitive."

With long suits, men don't have to shave their bodies for speed like they did in high school and college, a welcome benefit at any age. And for swimmers with skin cancer histories, full-body suits are safer for outdoor meets. Casey added that the above-the-knee suits that will be required by FINA, the NCAA, USA Swimming and high schools can be uncomfortably tight and not supportive enough for those who lack, for example, Australian star Stephanie Rice's legs.

"Some of us with bad knees, the full leg [suit] gives you the feeling your knee is being held together," Casey, 60, said.

The one issue that has really touched a nerve in the masters community: the issue of fasteners. As part of its ban, the world governing body, FINA, said it would prohibit zippers or fasteners. Masters swimmers, depending on the size of their waistlines and hips, need more zippers and fasteners than your average ripped Olympic athlete, several swimmers noted. They need the devices merely to get in the super-snug suits without suffering an injury, and, in some cases, to hold the suits in place.

"I have not yet seen a majority opinion [on any suit element] except for fasteners," Casey said. "We're thinking we need at least drawstrings, and we might need zippers."

Added Rob Butcher, the executive director of USMS: "I'm closer today to 40 than I am to 30. . . . As you get more aged, it becomes that more challenging to climb into one of these suits. [A zipper] allows one not to worry about dislocating your shoulder or hips when getting into a suit."

Butcher speculated that masters swimming could seek a compromise position that keeps long suits and zippers, but does away with high-tech impermeable materials and goes back to textiles. Once FINA's masters technical commission decides on a course of action, the issue would go to the USMS Board of Directors, which has to approve any rule changes in the United States.

Butcher proposed that masters swimming adopt whatever textile materials the other governing bodies approve, while allowing fasteners and full arm and leg coverage. That would reduce confusion for manufacturers while giving masters swimmers a more extensive selection of suit options.

"I think and would hope you would see masters make a positive argument that the suit definition be more generous than it is today," Butcher said.

"We're not out there trying to break Michael Phelps's world records. . . . Our mission is slightly different. We just want to get people in the water."

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