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Opinion: Swim Legend Tests the New BodySuits -- July 27, 2000

(Australian swimming legend, Shane Gould, headed for the Masters World Championships, becomes a human guinea pig, trying out the new bodysuits and giving her assessment.)

By Shane Gould

Curiosity got the better of me after the Australian Olympic Swimming Trials in May. I had to try the new, long swimsuits.

At 43, I'm swimming seven hours a week, doing 63.2sec for 100 freestyle and my base heart rate is 42. So I reckon I can qualify as a guinea pig for a personal long-suit experiment.

It was easy to get on if you'd worn wetsuits or leggings before -- just needed help to do up the zipper. The best thing was they made me feel and look like I had the muscle tone and waist of a 20-year-old!

After swimming a few hundred metres, I felt the full long sleeve pulling my elbows down from a standard high elbow recovery --that's probably why most swimmers raced in the armless version. I kept swimming, but found the next day that I had sore muscles across my shoulder blades -- different from the usual spot.

I then did some torpedo kick drills (ie kicking laps
without a kickboard, arms outstretched). I had significantly more flotation than usual -- it was easier to do the kicking because I was higher in the water. I then did some breaststroke. It was difficult to thrust down into the water against the upward flotation push. The feeling is similar to trying to duck-dive with a 4mm steamer wetsuit on. The full-length legs restricted my breaststroke kick, too. That's probably why, at the Trials, the breaststrokers didn't use the full-length suits.

The main thing I experienced in the suit was the
suffocating feeling that my core body temperature was rising. It was such a relief to take it off. I then experienced the most amazing sensation; it was so awesome, I'd wear the suit again just to get it again. Every square millimetre of my body was sensitive to the water and to the millions of bubbles that are always there, which I usually don't feel. It was
incredible and very enjoyable! I still think the
suits are a `device'' and should therefore be banned. But I also worry about more subtle effects -- with regular use, swimmers could lose their "feel" for the
water. In a very short time, I believe that using the swimsuit would produce robotic swimmers. But my curiosity still wasn't sated.

The Professor of Human Movement and Exercise Science
at the University of Western Australia, Brian Blanksby, has developed a methodology to test buoyancy.

I visited his "lab" and was towed through the water
in a regular suit and two "friction-free" swim suits, at an average swimming speed, world record pace and
faster-than-world-record pace. Wearing both suits, I
was also lowered into the Specific Gravity tank (ie: my weight underwater) to assess my "floatability." These static tests didn't show much difference between the suits, even though the long ones felt "floatatious."

The measures of total drag, or resistances created by
a swimmer moving through the water, were about six to eight per cent less in the new suit than the old.

Because a doubling of swimming speed causes more than a doubling of resistances, and creates up to an eight-fold increase in energy required maintain that increased speed, there will not be a six to eight per cent improvement in time. Rather, it would be perhaps a
one to two per cent decrease in time.

The greatest advantage in the suit came during
dolphin kicking under the water, when the drag difference was about 10 per cent. In butterfly, it felt easier to get the hips up in the water and skip across the surface.

Professor Blanksby believes the "smoother skin"
provides the greatest advantage at the start and during turns. He estimates swimmers could gain an extra metre with each turn, before the swimmer decelerates to swimming speed, also giving the
dominant muscles a longer rest period and
conserving energy. Hence, in a 1500m short-course swim with 59 turns, a significant benefit could be gained.

I can, however, offer one more comparison. During my
tests wearing the Adidas suit, I swam a 2:11.5 for a 200m freestyle -- an unofficial Masters record. But recently, I donned a simple knee-length, sleeveless
lycra suit and set official Masters short-course world records, in the 40-44 year age group, for the 200m
and 400m freestyle at Sydney's Ryde Aquatic Centre,
the venue for Olympic water polo.

In two solo swims, I swam 2:10.37 for the 200m --
three seconds faster than the existing record -- and a surprising 4:34.14 for the 400m, just under the old
record.

To put it in perspective, the (long course) world
records I set at Munich were 2:03.56 and 4:19.04. In 1973, I won the Australian titles in 2:09.30 and 4:31.30.

So at 43, I haven't slowed much at all -- nor do I
need a "Fastskin" to prove it!