Ban on high-tech bodysuits hasn't affected swimmers as much as expected

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; 12:00 AM

This was supposed to be the year of excruciatingly slow swimming. With the polyurethane bodysuits that led to dozens of world records now relegated to museum displays and garage sales, swimming insiders predicted times would balloon accordingly, by as much as 2 to 5 percent.

And in fact, some of the times rose substantially at the U.S. championships earlier this month. The average time among the top three men in the 200 fly, for example, stood 2.29 percent higher than in 2009 and 3.30 percent greater than 2008. No American records were set, and no one disputes this: The ban on the high-tech suits brought an emphatic and unquestioned halt to three wild years of world-record obliteration.

Yet American Ryan Lochte found himself within spitting distance of his own world record in the 200-meter individual medley and said he hopes to take it down at this week's multi-nation Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, Calif. Rebecca Soni and Michael Phelps also laid down times that left them within sight of the women's 200 breaststroke and men's 100 butterfly world marks.

American athletes and coaches say Lochte's excellence and other strong performances at nationals offer evidence that the team's best swimmers can close the gap more quickly than expected.

"I don't think it's going to be that long before we figure out how to repeat those [world record] times," said Dana Vollmer, who will compete in the 100 and 200 freestyle and 100 butterfly at the Pan Pacs, which will feature 21 nations including charter countries Canada, Australia and Japan. "I would be expecting that [this week]. It's been a goal of mine to go best times in every event even though I'm not in a suit. I wouldn't put [world records] past people."

Average times of the top three finishers in each event at the U.S. championships swelled by less than 1 percent compared to the times posted at last year's world championship trials (0.80 percent), which featured most of the latest suit technology, and the 2008 Olympic trials (0.97 percent), which featured some of the top technology, according to a Washington Post review.

In a few events, the top competitors actually went faster.

"I almost broke my world record in the 200 IM," Lochte said by phone from the team's training camp in Irvine last week. "It can be done. I'm hoping [this] week. It's just a matter of time."

Applied knowledge

Swimmers and coaches say the supersuits did not merely increase athletes' speed; they also taught them how to go faster - critical information some have already applied to their training.

Swimmers say the supersuits' buoyancy essentially pushed athletes higher in the water, and their tightness effectively held everything in position, allowing swimmers to maintain excellent body position and tight streamlines almost effortlessly. That allowed them to use their energy to drive their arms, shoulders and legs.

And, just as important, the slippery suits also decreased resistance, which helped swimmers shoot more quickly off the walls on turns.

Ariana Kukors, who set the world record in the 200 medley last year, said the difference between her best of 2:06.15 and the 2:10.54 she swam at the U.S. championships largely resulted from her speed on the underwater portion of those races.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company