New Suits Cause Challenges for Paralympians

By Jacob Kittilstad

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, May 28. FOR most swimmers, selecting a racing suit is as easy as choosing a brand and a size. Aside from adjusting between small, medium, large, or numbered sizes, each suit can be worn as soon as it is taken out of the box.

This, however, is not the case for all swimmers.

Jarrett Perry, a member of the 2009 U.S. Paralympics Men's Swimming National Team, said he struggled to find the ideal way to alter his suits so they would fit his left leg, which was amputated above his knee.

"I tried lots of different things like completely covering my leg and adjusting the positions of the seams on the suits. I'd say it took about five or six years of trying to get it perfect," Perry said.

Perry is not alone when it comes to this challenge. As important as technical suits are for Olympic swimmers, they are just as important for Paralympic swimmers, said Jimi Flowers, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team.

"When the FS2 was the main suit we used to give them to each swimmer so they could modify them," said Flowers. "Now, with new suit technology, we have to worry about the integrity of the panels on the suits so there isn't leakage."

Before the Paralympic Games in Beijing, athletes were measured for their suit adjustments by a tailor during a training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. Each team member who requested alterations received an individually-modified suit. Some swimmers had their suits tailored a few times to get them to fit right, Flowers said.

Because the U.S. Paralympic team is unsponsored, athletes are able to choose which brand of suit to modify and compete in, Flowers said.

"One of the nice things about the suit companies now is that there's more than one suit available to choose from. One suit might have a bad pocket of air for one athlete while the same suit fits great for another athlete," Flowers said.

Elizabeth Stone, a member of the 2009 U.S. Paralympics Women's Swimming National Team, said whenever she has a suit altered, it always works out great for her. She modifies her suits because her right leg was amputated above the knee.

"In Beijing, I raced in a LZR. I got a suit that went down to the ankle and they cut half the fabric on the right leg off and because my stump is actually a little bit smaller, they tapered it for me," Stone said.

U.S. Paralympic Men's Team Member Alex Dionne, however, experienced a very different incident in Beijing when he wore his modified, full-body, blueseventy nero comp.

"The suit wasn't tight enough and it filled up with water," said Dionne, who was born missing his entire right leg and almost half of his left arm. "I could push the bubbles of water out of my suit when I got out of the water after my race."

When Dionne was younger, his mother would modify his suits for him on a regular sewing machine. But, with the introduction of new materials and higher prices for his suits, he hesitates to let anyone but a tailor alter what he competes in, Dionne said.

"The suits are expensive and if you mess up, you don't want to have to buy a new one. When altering the new suits, you have to be much more cautious," Dionne said.

Although some members of the U.S. Paralympic Swimming National Team do not require alterations for their suits, many still have their own individual ‘suit challenges' to overcome.

Mallory Weggeman, who is paralyzed from her pelvis down, said she has a lot of difficulty putting on the newer, tighter suits because she can't move her legs.

"I usually put my suit on at the hotel where I can lay on my back and squeeze myself into it," Weggeman said. "It would be nice to put my suit on after I warm-up but I want to do it myself and I can't jump around in the locker room to get myself into it easier."

Erin Popovich, said because she is a dwarf, she sometimes gets her full-body suits altered, but she currently chooses to race in unmodified Speedo LZR Racer Recordbreaker Kneeskins. Nevertheless, the suits could be improved for her, she said.

"My body type is not that of a six-foot-tall swimmer and suits don't always fit me exactly," Popovich said.

She added that if she designed a suit, she would want custom measurement options for different parts of her body so there would be no areas that were too tight or too loose.

Although some Paralympians are unable to wear technical suits without alterations done to them, suit companies try to support athletes as much as they can, said Flowers.

"I hope to still work with Speedo, they don't turn a blind eye to the Paralympics," Flowers said. "They help out when they can by giving us sweats and shorts either for free or at a very low cost."

The Paralympic team also worked with blueseventy, who provided suits at "an incredible discount", Flowers added.

But Flowers said it would be truly wonderful if representatives from suit companies became more involved in the alteration process.

"Hopefully in the future, we can get someone from Speedo, TYR, or blueseventy to come out to a Paralympic training camp and see what can be improved for our swimmers," Flowers said.

Roque Santos, the vice president of sales and marketing for blueseventy, said because there are so many different spheres of interest for suits (at colleges, high schools, triathlons, etc.) it is very difficult to focus heavily on one area alone. Still, he has worked with the Paralympic team before and would like to do so again.

"Blueseventy is very proud to have Paralympians choosing to race in our suits over other brands," Santos said. "Thinking for the future, if a tailor needs extra materials from blueseventy to modify a suit, we could help those tailors get what they need."

Currently, FINA is leaning towards creating a rule banning customized suits for athletes. Although the Paralympic Games use FINA's rules as a guideline, the ban would most likely not affect disabled athletes who modify their suits, Santos said.

Representatives of Speedo and TYR could not be reached for comment.

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