By Ira Klein
Head Coach, Santa Barbara Swim Club
There may still be people in our sport who have not realized that we are about to undergo a major evolution in the equipment we utilize for our sport, the swimsuit.
It is the responsibility of any manufacturing company to improve upon old products, create new products and, in the process of providing a needed service to the community it serves, to also provide increased profits. This is both expected and acceptable. As consumers and as the leaders of United States Swimming, we need neither accept nor embrace these changes.
Since this article is not directed at any of the apparel manufacturers, I will refrain from naming any here, but rather speak to the general situation
occurring. In 1996 after more than a decade of suits getting smaller, a trend began that increased the amount of surface area covered by the suits. More materials brought higher prices. Those suits generally went from neck to knee.
More recently suits have been introduced that have gone from neck to ankles, and also to the wrists. Each 'innovation' has brought higher prices. Now we are even being positioned with suits that have specially designed material that will enhance performance so significantly that every swimmer will have to have a suit of this material just to remain
competitive. The suit will cost between $150 and $240 each.
I am a coach, not a specialist in any field that could speak to the viability of any new material or new suit design. To me, performance in our sport has always been driven by the individual, not the equipment. To go
faster, you went to more practices or worked harder; you did not rely on a better suit.
Some people are excited about the possibility of faster times through such innovations, but this excitement will quickly dissipate.The qualifying times will get faster to ensure the same number of swimmers
qualify for the Nationals or even your local Junior Olympics. The records will initially drop, not because we did a better job but because we bought a better [and more expensive] suit. In the end the only thing that will change will be the annual cost to remain competitive. It will go from $50 per year to possibly over $700.
You will be faster in 2001 than in 2000, but so will all the qualifying times. The end result will be you paying hundreds of dollars more each year and you will still not qualify for the next level, unless you follow the direction of your coach: attending more practices or working harder, or both.
The only true winners will be the swim suit manufacturers. The losers will be every swim club who will lose members or find greater difficulty in recruiting new members because we will become the most
expensive youth sport in the country. Over a 12 year age group career the equipment cost could escalate to over $10,000.
Over the past decade we have talked about 'building the base' and creating outreach programs to recruit
minorities–trying to diminish the upper class country club image our sport has had. In this light, the move toward expensive equipment seems like a move in the wrong direction.
There are current rules in both USA Swimming and FINA that prohibit the use of anything that aids buoyancy or any device or substance that enhances speed. These new materials and designs do exactly that and our rules are being flagrantly set aside with a complete disregard as to the impact this disregard will have upon the sport and its participants.
Supporters of the new suits point to innovations over the past few decades as the standard: The addition of goggles or the improvement in bathing caps, neither of which made a competitor faster. At one time nylon suits replaced wool, which soaked up the water and
weighed the competitor down. It is not so much that nylon enhanced performance as wool inhibited performance.
From nylon we went to lycra suits, which was, in itself, a tremendous leap forward. Times dropped, as
did qualifying times for all meets. When lycra came to our country after the 1973 World Championships, it was reported that in East Germany they did a study, which showed that the lycra material was superior to nylon, but that no bathing suit at all was faster than lycra.
The new material is reported to be even better than bare skin: the more material the faster the athlete.
Where does it stop? Next do we cover the hands, then feet, then head? Do we create webbing between fingers and toes? Do we include oxygen filaments threaded through the suits to aid in our breathing? If our current rules cannot prevent the coming changes, then they cannot prevent any of these potential changes.
Yes, we have had advances in the design of pools, lane lines, timing systems, goggles, caps and bathing suits. Does this mean we must accept any and every change offered? As a coach in this sport I have been proud that we have mainly been athlete-driven, not equipment-driven for the hard-won improvements we have made. Teach and learn better technique, improve training and increase frequency and intensity of training. These are the things that have brought about the best, most meaningful and longest lasting improvements.
I was taught that pointing out a problem and not offering a possible solution never solves anything. Here are one coach's thoughts, one coach's solutions, for what they are worth:
1. Have independent professionals test any new materials for buoyancy and ability to aid in either speed or recovery.
2. Expect and demand that our USA Swimming Board of Directors and our FINA representatives represent all the members of USA Swimming in their best interests. If new materials or designs violate our rules then they
should be banned in competition.
3. Provide limits as to how much suit there can be; [i.e. the bathing suit cannot cover the patella and lower leg, the deltoid and arm or reach above the lower neckline.]
4. If FINA approves these innovations over our collective objections, we should not put our athletes at a disadvantage on the international scene. I
wouldn't do that to my own athletes. However, I would still suggest that we not allow usage in our Age Group program.
At this past Senior Nationals I approached a USA FINA representative about this coming problem. I was told that "it is here, just deal with it". I am just one lone voice and, if it is the only voice to speak up, then the powers in charge should ignore it. If you want a yearly bathing suit bill to start approaching four figures, then keep your silence. Whether you are a
coach, parent or swimmer, if you agree with any points I have made, then make your voice heard as well. Don't expect the better-known college coaches to carry this banner; they neither pay themselves nor explain to new parents why it costs so much.
You must get involved. Write, E-mail or call both of your Zone Representatives, the Board of Directors,the
President of USA Swimming (firstname.lastname@example.org)and the Executive Director (email@example.com) and National Team Director (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Don't delay, or, when you pay that first large
bill, you will have no one to blame but yourself.