A Comparison of Textile Bests to World Records

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, April 10. NOW that most of the major Olympic Trials — with the obvious exception of the United States — are over, it's worth taking a look at the various world records to see which are the better swims: the official records, which are in most cases techsuit-aided, or the textile bests.

This article will look at all the individual Olympic events. There is no standard formula for converting a tech suited time to a textile time. A rough rule of thumb might be that the tech suits are worth approximately seven-tenths of a second per hundred, but that's a very fuzzy rule. Conversions, if that word can even be used, must take into account which tech suit, which event, and which swimmer.

In early 2008, when Speedo first came out with the LZR, that was the fastest suit going. But by 2009, when the second generation all-polyurethane suits like the Jaked and Arena X-Glide came out, things got really crazy. Yet some of the current world records, even from 2009, were set in LZRs. And some were set by swimmers wearing only leggings, which conferred less benefit.

Any rough conversion must also take into account the distance swum. That seven-tenths of a second per hundred generally shrank as the distance increased; it's no coincidence that Grant Hackett's and Kate Ziegler's 1500's were the only two world records to survive the techsuit era, nor that the events in which the largest number of techsuit-clad swimmers broke previous records were the 50's and 100's.

Beyond that, two different swimmers wearing the same techsuit under the same conditions would benefit by differing amounts, depending on their form and their natural buoyancy. There are a few cases where the techsuited record holder hasn't come close to his or her record in textile; some would say that casts a shadow over their record. But it's also possible that 2009 might have been a career year for them anyway; this article gives them the benefit of that doubt.

Some of you will be personally familiar with swimmers whose techsuits seemed to benefit them by more than a second per hundred. Bear in mind, at the level where swimmers are setting world records, there are fewer sins of both stroke and body shape to forgive, so the advantage gained was less.

In any case, there's certainly no exact formula for figuring out how much the tech suits were worth. The question is, taking all these factors into account, which was the better swim. In some cases the answer is easy, in others less so. In cases where it's close, this article will err on the side of agnosticism.

Men's 50 free: Cesar Cielo, 20.91, vs. Fred Bousquet, 21.36. Bousquet did break 21 seconds in a techsuit, and no one else has ever broken 21.5 without one. But this one's still too close for a definitive call.

Men's 100 free: Cesar Cielo, 46.91, vs. James Magnussen, 47.10. Easy, this one's all Magnussen.

Men's 200 free: Paul Biedermann, 1:42.00, vs. Michael Phelps, 1:43.86. Biedermann wore an Arena X-Glide to beat Phelps (and Phelps' WR of 1:42.96 set in a full body LZR) in Rome. This won't be a popular decision, but this fan calls it for Biedermann. True, Biedermann has never broken 1:44 in textile, and he was beaten by both Phelps and Lochte last summer. But no reasonable conversion factor calls for a second per 100.

Men's 400 free: Paul Biedermann, 3:40.07, vs. Ian Thorpe, 3:40.08. Absolutely no question here, Thorpe's was by far the superior swim.

Men's 1500 free: No comparison necessary, Sun Yang's textile suited 14:34.14 is the official world record.

Men's 100 back: Aaron Peirsol, 51.94, vs. Camille Lacourt, 52.11. This one is pretty easy: despite the fact that Peirsol wore only Arena leggings for his swim, those were indisputably worth more than two tenths over a 100. Lacourt wins.

Men's 200 back: Peirsol, 1:51.92, vs. Ryan Lochte, 1:52.96. This one's closer, but Peirsol's pure polyurethane leggings were still probably worth more than half a second per hundred. Lochte, by a narrow margin.

Men's 100 breast: Brenton Rickard, 58.58, vs. Alexander Dale Oen, 58.71. Easy: Oen.

Men's 200 breast: Christian Sprenger, 2:07.31, vs. Kosuke Kitajima, 2:08.00. Fairly easy decision: Kitajima.

Men's 100 fly: Michael Phelps, 49.82, vs. Ian Crocker, 50.40. Phelps wore a full body LZR for his swim; was that worth .58 in a 100? Hard to say; too close to call.

Men's 200 fly: Phelps, 1:51.51, vs. Phelps, 1:52.09. Phelps wore only LZR leggings for his official world record, but his textile best is still the better swim.

Men's 200 IM: No comparison necessary, Lochte's textile-clad 1:54.00 is the official record.

Men's 400 IM: Phelps, 4:03.84, vs. Phelps, 4:06.22. Phelps wore only LZR leggings for his official WR, and over 400 meters the tech suit advantage shrinks a bit. His 4:03.84 was probably the better swim, but let's put this one in the too close to call category.

Women's 50 free: Britta Steffen, 23.73, vs. Inge de Bruijn and Francesca Halsall, 24.13. As with the men's 50, it's too close for a definitive call.

Women's 100 free: Steffen, 52.07, vs. Sjostrom, 53.05. At a full second spread, you have to give this one to Steffen by a few tenths. She won both the 50 and 100 frees at the 2008 Olympics and at the 2009 World Championships, so it's not as if she hadn't consistently proven herself against top competition, either.

Women's 200 free: Federica Pellegrini, 1:52.98, vs. Camille Muffat, 1:54.87. This one goes to Pellegrini.

Women's 400 free: Federica Pellegrini, 3:59.15 vs. Camille Muffat, 4:01.13. Muffat's turn, by a somewhat narrower margin.

Women's 800 free: Rebecca Adlington, 8:14.10, vs. Janet Evans, 8:16.22. Easy choice, Evans.

Women's 100 back: Gemma Spofforth, 58.12, vs. Zhao Jing, 58.94. Spofforth, who wore a LZR to set her record, gets a narrow nod here.

Women's 200 back: Kirsty Coventry, 2:04.81, vs. Missy Franklin, 2:05.10. Obviously, Franklin.

Women's 100 breast: Jessica Hardy, 1:04.45, vs. Rebecca Soni, 1:04.91. Soni by a narrow margin.

Women's 200 breast: Annamay Pierse, 2:20.12, vs. Leisel Jones, 2:20.54. Easily Jones.

Women's 100 fly: Sarah Sjostrom, 56.06, vs. Dana Vollmer, 56.47. Vollmer by a couple tenths.

Women's 200 fly: Liu Zige, 2:01.81, vs. Zige, 2:04.40. Her techsuited time is clearly better. It is actually one of the three most improbable records set during the techsuit (along with Zhang Lin's 800 free and Arianna Kukors' 200 IM).

Women's 200 IM: Arianna Kukors, 2:06.15, vs. Ye Shiwen, 2:08.90. Obviously, Kukors.

Women's 400 IM: Stephanie Rice, 4:29.45, vs. Elizabeth Beisel, 4:31.78. Interestingly, the difference of 2.33 seconds is very close to the difference between Phelps' two 400 IM's, which was 2.38. This one is likewise too close to definitively call.

So where does that leave us? This list includes two events were the textile best is also the official world record, five deemed too close to call, 13 where the textile swim is considered superior, and six where the techsuit time is given the edge. Where this article called for one or the other by a narrow margin, there will of course be differing opinions. There are also some swims where the difference is stark enough that there will be few dissenting opinions. This article shied away from picking the close ones, as the point was not to make narrow calls.

While the techsuit era is considered by many to have been a sort of blight on swimming, there were several outstanding swims — six to be exact — which must be given their due. If you look at the history of swimming, at any given time hasn't been at all uncommon for six of the world records in the 26 individual Olympic events to have been set three and four years previously, especially when one of those years was an Olympic year.

But while those swims must be given their due — and are, with official recognition — the textile bests which are obviously superior swims must also be given their due.

(Thanks to Swimming World and Craig Lord of SwimNews for having recently compiled lists of textile bests.)

John Craig was a mediocre swimmer in college but is second to none in his nerdy love of the sport.