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Let’s Get Technical

The evolution of competition swimwear and how Speedo built its latest offering

Elaine Howley | May 17, 2016

The year 2008 was the best of times for Speedo, and the worst of times for just about every other competition swimwear manufacturer on the planet. In February of that year, Speedo debuted a revolutionary new bathing suit, its now-iconic LZR Racer, a 50-50 blend of nylon and polyurethane that completely changed the swimming game. Swimmers wearing the revolutionary suit churned through records, and other companies rushed to copy or improve upon the technology.

According to a Wall Street Journal article published in August 2008—partway through the swimming competition at the Beijing Olympics—Speedo had taken 2,500 suits to Omaha, Neb., for the U.S. Olympic swim trials, “ready to outfit anyone who asked…. Going into the meet, Speedo had about 66 percent of the swimmers. By the end, 76 percent were wearing the LZR, including the vast majority of those who made the American team. Speedo crowed that every event was won by a swimmer wearing the LZR.” And thus, the gauntlet had been thrown down and an arms race in competitive swimwear technology ensued.

By July 2009, the quest to top the competition had produced near-wetsuit-like garments that some athletes felt lent an unfair advantage to the swimmers sporting them. The most extreme of the technical suits were completely nonporous, largely made of neoprene, or constructed from 100 percent polyurethane. Each company had its own secret sauce for its technical suit, but as a bottom line, virtually none of them absorbed water and, it was rumored that some of the more high-tech varieties trapped air between the suit and the swimmer’s skin, thus aiding their buoyancy.

Michael Phelps and a few other big names, after losing high-profile races, began criticizing what they saw as technological doping and FINA stepped in, changing the rules for what swimwear could be worn in competition. By 2010, the hyper-hydrophobic and neoprene suits that had so changed the sport had become an asterisked footnote in its history.

How Speedo’s LZR Racer X Came to Be

Despite the sudden game change, innovation in the field continues, and Speedo is leading the way toward the Rio Olympics with their LZR Racer X, a FINA-approved, wearable piece of swimming technology that will likely outfit much of the U.S. Olympic team this summer.

According to Kate Wilton, Speedo’s senior director of merchandising and design, when the rules changed in 2009, Speedo was actually in a pretty good position to make the necessary design adjustments to keep their suits legal. “We had never launched a suit that was made of neoprene, so we kept within the textile [rule]. But we did have to go back and adjust the permeability of the textile. That adjustment was easy because we already had a fabric we believed in,” she says. They also removed some panels to keep in step with permeability requirements and shortened the length of the suits to comply with the new rules, but “we were fortunate that we were in a position that we had production fabric rolling we could make adjustments to,” Wilson says.

Despite this fortuitous positioning, Wilton says the new rules did force a change in approach to forward design of technical suits. “At first it took a little wind out of our sails,” she recalls. “We’d been so able to think outside the box and do crazy things,” but when the rules changed, “our area of play had been reduced dramatically. It just took a new approach and a new way of thinking about it. And that’s how we found ourselves spending more time with the athletes and less time in the lab,” she says.

Since beginning to innovate in the technical suit market in the late 1990s, Speedo has relied heavily on scientific testing of its suits and fabrics. This time, however, the company asked swimmers what they wanted earlier in the design cycle. Most said they wanted a fabric with more water repellency. “That’s a little bit tricky because you’ve got to figure out ways to improve water repellency without breaking the permeability rules that FINA has in place,” Wilton says.

The athletes also asked to “be fast, look fast, and feel fast,” Wilson says, which led the design team to realize the power of perception. “Perception actually drives everyone being faster in the water,” Wilton says.

In all, the team worked with some 300 athletes to find out what “feeling fast” meant and to figure out how this new suit could deliver that sensation in a rules-compliant way. “Everybody’s response was a little different. Some said riding high in the water, others wanted lots of compression, and others are trying to find a light-weight feeling,” Wilton says.

But the team gathered all the feedback the swimmers gave them and tried to continually improve the compression of the fabric and the range of motion it allows the swimmers. That’s how they ended up with the current fabric, called CompreX, which uses one-way vertical stretch technology to allow full range of motion while providing high compression and reduced drag. When you think about it, it’s a lot to ask of a textile.

In addition to working with the elite, sponsored athletes, Wilton says the team also sought the feedback of younger swimmers. “We wanted to make sure that the technology for how these elite guys were feeling trickled down to the up-and-coming swimmers as well.”

Working with so many different athletes at various points along the spectrum of “fast” meant the design team put more than 10,000 hours into creating this latest suit, time that included everything from materials research and water repellency testing to fabrication prototyping and styling meetings.

Form Follows Function

In designing technical suits, Wilton says the Speedo design team starts with function first. “We start with the fabrication and the fabric usually lends itself to how it conforms to the body. We take into account all the different strokes, where seams should lie on the body from a biomechanics perspective, how the suit can support optimal body position. And then we layer on print and color. It’s a bit backwards to traditional suit design,” which usually starts with the aesthetic first, she says.

Although fashion takes a backseat to function in high-tech gear like this, Wilton says whether swimmers like how they look in a suit can be a surprisingly important component of making them swim faster. Wilton says many of the elite swimmers had strong opinions about how they wanted to look in these suits and brought all sorts of aesthetic ideas to the table for the development team to sift through. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says, “they want it to function. They want it to be the fastest suit out there. But they want to feel fast and look good, too.” It’s understandable that athletes about to take to the world’s most visible, international stage would want to look good at work.

So will the suit really make you faster? Maybe, but Wilton is quick to remind us to do our homework if we want to win. “We just want to make sure the athletes know it takes more than a fast suit to swim fast. They still have to do their training, they still have to have their nutrition in check, and all that kind of stuff. We want to be part of the process, but we know we’re not the end-all-be-all of the process,” she says.

But if you feel faster, you probably are, she says. “We’re going to take every perception as gold because we’ve been down the path where we kind of shoved science at everyone and it doesn’t always work.” With this latest suit, Wilton says, “it’s not about us and what we’re telling you it says on paper. It’s about how you feel.”

Want Gold? Better See Silver First

When testing various fabrics for incorporation into the new LZR Racer X suit, Speedo athletes and the design team looked for the so-called “silvering effect.” Kate Wilton, Speedo’s senior director of merchandising and design, explains: “When a fabric doesn’t absorb water when you dive in, it has this silver, shimmery-ness that appears on it,” and this is a very important factor for elite swimmers because they know it means the water repellency of the fabric is very high.

This was such a critical component of testing that “we got to the point where we’d all be lined up, standing by the side of pool,” Wilton says. “You can really see the effect from the top when you’re looking down on a swimmer when they do a pencil drop into the water. We were all standing there, looking to see if it appeared silver or not.”

Some suits survived the test; others did not. “No matter how good the water repellency tested in the lab, if the swimmers did not see silver, they didn’t think it was fast,” Wilton says, proving that perception is a big component of a swimmer’s feeling of fast.

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About the Author—Elaine Howley

Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including AARP.orgAtlas ObscuraespnW, and U.S. News & World Report. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she has contributed to SWIMMER magazine since 2009 and USMS.org since 2012. Contact her via her website: elainekhowley.com

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