What if We Ditch the Tech Suit?

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

By Kristy Kinzer, Swimming World College Intern.

An Era of Tech Suits

Nearly every sport has evolved with new rules and regulations that govern the dynamics of training and competition, and swimming has not remained untouched. We’ve all seen changes to the sport, such as updated breaststroke pull-out regulations, new back-to-breast turns in the individual medley, improved specialty training regimens, and trendy “most effective” stroke techniques.

But all things considered, the most controversial aspect of modern swimming is the athlete’s attire: the high-tech suit. Unlike minor changes in equipment with other sports such as improved technical tennis racquets or golf clubs, the high-tech swim suit offers athletes an advantage likened to doping.

Evolution of Tech Suits

Photo Courtesy: Tony Lewis

The Low-Down

Swimmers are always looking for a way to get a competitive edge, whether it’s shaving any exposed areas, wearing a dome cap, or uniquely engineered goggles with the intent of reducing drag. These competitive advantages may be compared with a few thousandths of seconds spared; however, the tech suit can be attributed to several tenths-of-second drops.

No one in the swimming world can forget the record-shattering 2009 World Games in Rome, affectionately known as the “Plastic Games.” Forty-three new world records were set in the debut of polyurethane-based full-body tech suits, as compared to the next highest of 24 records set in 2007 and 19 in 2003 without these suits.

Phelps suit

Photo Courtesy: Stefano Rellandini

Highlighting this issue was the 200 freestyle race in which Michael Phelps was defeated by Germany’s Paul Biedermann, who was wearing a pure polyurethane suit superior to Phelps’s. It was the first race internationally that any athlete beat Phelps, and Biedermann himself seemed to credit the suit and not his abilities as the real winner.

“I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without the suit,” Biedermann said. He added that the suit debate “is not my problem, it’s not the problem of Arena, my sponsor. It’s the problem of FINA…We’re in a dangerous situation of what comes next. It’s really important to go back to the real swimming.”

Governing Response

To preserve the integrity of the sport, FINA’s congress voted that racing suits be made of permeable materials and that there will be limits on how much of a swimmer’s body could be covered. Among these regulations are specific thickness, buoyancy, and permeability values. Though FINA has banned full-body tech suits which provided pockets of buoyancy and extreme water repelling properties, swimwear companies continuously push the limits within the new regulations to market the “fastest” and best suit. FINA compiles a list of tested and approved swimwear for sanctioned competitions every year; however, it fails to address the underlying ethical issue of an extreme advantage with the tech suit.

missy-franklin-elizabeth-beisel-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Even the currently legal tech suits enable swimmers with less-than-ideal physique or inferior conditioning to be extremely streamlined, devaluing athleticism. But FINA’s improved regulations have garnered positive reactions from pro swimmers. Elizabeth Beisel, one of three team captains of the US women’s Olympic swim team in Rio this past summer, has strong opinions regarding changing the tech suit rules. “Pretty much anybody could swim fast in those suits,” Beisel said. “Now, you definitely need to be a hard worker and have some yardage and stuff under your belt. You can’t just rely on the suits to make you fast anymore.”

Though it seems that the issue of tech suits giving an advantage has been curbed a bit with better regulations, they continue to provide hydrodynamic properties of extra compression, greatly improving body positioning in the water. If relying on training, speed, and talent is truly the direction that beginner and pro swimmers desire the sport to take, then why utilize high tech suits in the first place? Rather than leveling the field by banning full-body suits, wouldn’t the field truly be leveled by banning them altogether?

“It’s not that we are opposed to science, but we want the performance on the athletes to be gauged on their hard work, on what they’re able to accomplish without technological aids, specifically swimsuits,” said Chuck Wielgus, past executive director of USA Swimming.

The Bottom Line

FINA’s rulings attempt to level the field; however, manufacturers are constantly pushing the boundaries to market their products and improve their bottom line. “It definitely unleashes a little more creativity and innovation if the rules are relaxed a bit,” said Todd Mitchell, who helped develop Michael Phelps’s signature swimsuit line for Aqua Sphere that he wore in Rio. Companies need to make the best profit, of course, and know the rest of the field will follow the elites. Young age-groupers and older masters athletes alike attempt to emulate the suit decisions from pros.

Phelps Suit Marketing

Photo Courtesy: ZwemZa

Furthering the disparity between those with tech suits and those without is the cost of suits. The full-body suits deemed illegal cost nearly $500 each and only last about three meets at most before the material degrades. The current legal suits can cost up to $300 or more depending on the brand and style and sponsorship, and this financial burden for lay-swimmer’s families hardly seems to level the playing field. Wealthier athletes don’t need to think twice about throwing down extra cash for an advantage, beating equally talented but less affluent athletes simply by affording a better suit.

A Truly Level Swimming-Field

“I know the suit rules are there to make it equal for everyone,” said Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals at the 2012 London Games. “That’s what is most important.” If equality is what we’re after, then swimmers who truly desire to hold on to the integrity of the sport would support going back to its roots and banning all high-tech suits from competition. No one would have any sort of advantage over the other simply based on suit material and ability to afford these suits.

rio-ledecky-fistpump-celebrate

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

After all, much of the hype around wearing the legal high tech suits plays into a mental edge rather than just a physical edge. “Some of it is the placebo effect, let’s be honest,” said Bruce Gemmell, who coached American star Katie Ledecky. “I think they’re all about the same.” Nearly every swimmer who has worn a high tech suit can attest to its confidence-boosting ability, no matter the brand of suit worn.

I may be old school, but I think that all tech suits should be banned and stricter regulations be enforced by FINA. Men wear briefs and women wear traditional training suit cuts. Athletes battle it out in the water mano a mano, allowing for superior training and technique to reign and preserve the integrity of the sport of swimming. Let’s get back to simple swimming— whoever is best trained wins.

Commentary: All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

79 Comments

79 comments

  1. Donald P. Spellman

    WE would save money.
    The suit manufacturers would lose money.
    There would be less money at the top end to support professional athletes.

    • John Dussliere

      Don I can tell you the suit companies will lose nothing if the tech suits were ruled out.

    • avatar
      Nope

      I don’t buy that. The manufacturers have plenty of other ways to make money. They would find new revenue streams. And it would still be in their interest to sponsor elite athletes.

    • Donald P. Spellman

      Will they still be able to sponsor pro athletes & swim teams?

    • John Dussliere

      They really don’t spend as much on that as you may think.

    • John Dussliere

      They are all being bought up by firms that see sponsorship as nothing more than an expense that they would like to get rid of.

    • John Dussliere

      Except swim companies don’t accept or promote a doping culture. ?

  2. Jonna Waller

    Oh how much money we would save….

  3. avatar
    Cameron Rothery

    “Highlighting this issue was the 200 butterfly race in which Michael Phelps was defeated by Germany’s Paul Biedermann”

    Think you might want to correct that to read, “200 Free”.

  4. avatar
    Bill Bell

    Yes, exactly, Cameron. The ONLY major200 fly race the GOAT ever list was @ London five years ago to Chad Le Clis. The race to which you refer was in fact the 200 free — and Herr Biedermann has to duplicate either if hus Rome wins in any otter major international competition since.

    Talk about a one-hit wonder!

    • avatar
      Cameron Rothery

      Yup. For him and a number of others the suit was THE difference between world record holder and ‘also swam’.

  5. Colleen Hazlett

    Really, body shaming while talking about tech suits?

    “Even the currently legal tech suits enable swimmers with less-than-ideal physique or inferior conditioning to be extremely streamlined, devaluing athleticism.”

    • avatar
      Kristy Kinzer

      Lol yes, I always felt body shamed just by putting them on. But I am pointing out a fact that the most streamlined body is faster…can’t argue with physics. Athletes have a certain amount of control over their body composition, and many swimmers think they can eat whatever they want and still be in the top shape. I am quite curvy myself and am limited in speed by my body type in certain ways that aren’t necessarily under my control. But if you look at most elite female swimmers, they have similar body types-long, lean, and very strong–though not all look the same.

    • James Bice

      Is that what you took from that? I think you’re digging. It’s not body shaming, it’s stating a fact.

    • James Bice

      “Even the currently legal tech suits enable swimmers with less-than-ideal (fat and lazy) physique or inferior (slow and not trained) conditioning to be extremely streamlined, devaluing athleticism.”

      Yep, that is what we call hitting the nail on the head.

    • Debra Wold Hardwick

      I have a less than ideal body at 37 and utilized the knee length suit to pull in my hips and thighs. No body shame. Reality of drag. I think we all do it.

    • Jennette Hawk-Gonzalez

      James Bice I didn’t get body shaming either from that. It was well said ?

    • James Bice

      I’m far from peak competition shape at 39, but I’m not going to say I need a tech suit before I say I need to train.

    • Daniel Caudle

      James Bice I was going to say the same thing.

  6. Nicholas Chen

    Typo on the article. Michael Phelps didn’t race Paul Biederman in the 200 fly. It was the 200 free.

  7. Adam Schön

    Why? We are like the only sport in the world who take steps backwards in the development of our racing gear!

    • avatar
      Kristy Kinzer

      Has and should racing gear really been a focus of competition? That’s the discussion I want to bring up. You can see technology as evolution, or technology polluting the sport (or several other stances). Swimming used to be about watching athletes race, not which gear is best. I appreciate your opinion though.

    • Elizabeth Hinely

      I don’t think it would. I think it is more likely that the regular racing suits would end up costing more. They have to make their money somehow.

  8. Zach Burr

    Paul Biedermann never beat Phelps in a 200 fly. It was the 200 free.

  9. Rich Rohlfing

    How about the backstrokers actually touch the wall with their HAND when doing a turn.

  10. avatar
    David Abineri

    I cannot understand why our international leaders in FINA do not seem to have, for example, a one year trial period before allowing any new technology to be used in all competitions. It seems that they are probably lining their pockets at the expense of properly protecting the sport they govern.

  11. avatar
    Swimparenthere

    I think they should be banned for 14/under athletes. It is especially ridiculous to see prepubescent 10-year-old girls wearing tech suits. I’ve even seen 7yo girls wearing them, and the suit is too big anyway (though almost becomes a full-body suit by the percent of the small body covered!).

    Many teams/coaches only allow them for championship meets, and above certain ages. The theory being, “save something for later, when you need it more”. I couldn’t agree more.

  12. Noelle Tolbert

    I kind of agree with this. You feel pressured to have your swimmer in a tech suit for major meets as well. We should just get back to swimming…without the high tech gear.

  13. Betsy Wasiniak

    I agree they should be banned before high school. Early years are for learning (technique, power, endurance ,strength) ; adapting swim to body changes and growth; losing races ; setting new goals to win the next race and build confidence. Why add technology before all this?

    • Lulu Bellm

      I agree, but I would wait until college

    • Mike McHenry

      Skills before speed…speed before endurance, but good luck getting coaches, and more importantly, parents on board with that.

  14. John Ferrara

    Ditch the tech suits so we can compare apples to apples. We didn’t have them back in the day.

    • Adam Schön

      We didn’t have cars or airplane either! You want horses back as our transport?

    • John Ferrara

      I’m talking back in the day as in pre-2000 when there was no techsuits or similar suits. Hope they had cars, planes, trains or buses where you live before then.

  15. Anne Coates

    Better for my bank balance to ditch these suits

  16. John Turner

    Sure change the rules – next it will be legalize PED’s

  17. Jon Dubrick

    Everyone would rank the same….just a little slower

  18. Bryan Hockman

    When it comes to tech suits I’m glad I have boys.

  19. Dave Hoover

    Nothing….and it’ll all be just about swimming again and not a high tech arms race.

  20. Christian Rottier

    They ditch the suits ima be ticked! Just spent 400$ on a new lzr x

  21. Carl Schoonover

    I hate it when they say it makes you faster. Your improved fitness makes you faster. The high tech strokes just slow you down less. If everyone wore these suits, then the playing field is level, and it wouldn’t matter if it was a regular swim suit or a high tech one. The better swimmer will still win.

  22. John Bradley

    The $$$ argument is not the greatest one to make IMHO. Couldn’t the same argument then be made that two athletes equal in every way except one – one can afford to pay for superior coaching or training. Should we subsidize athletes and programs so they have equal training opportunities? I think the better argument is one that uses some sort of suit formula – standard fabric, etc… Having said that, I don’t mind the suits. No different than racquets or clubs. Everyone has access to them.

  23. Glen Silvers

    Age groupers should not be allowed to where them. Older than that, I’m cool with.

  24. Jennette Hawk-Gonzalez

    I wish there’d go back old school, no fancy suits, just good swimming ?

  25. Tomas Thrainsson

    Just ban the infernal things. It should be about ability, not gear

  26. Ritalin in academics? Asthma inhalers in sport? Protein shakes & bars everyone can argue for their beliefs

  27. Daniel Caudle

    I’ve never used a tech suit. The main reasons are cost and need. I’m 35, so I’m not swimming for a spot in the 2020 Olympics. I’m swimming for fitness, comradare, and an occaional fun competition with someone my age. So a $300 tech suit would not be ideal for me. At that price I’d much rather buy 8 or 9 traditional suits and have enough to last me a year or more. Having said that, for those who ARE trying for Olympics or international competition, it is my understanding (correct me if I’m wrong here) that the tech suits are banned at those levels? If that is still the case, I would say do the same thing we say in the Army, we train how we fight. If I can only use a certain style/material of suit at competition levels, then that is how I would train in the pool everyday as well.

    • 1. Techsuits aren’t banned no
      2. They aren’t used in training because they are extremely expensive and don’t give you the same feel and advantages after 3-4 races, nevermind after even only 1 5-8 km practice.

    • Daniel Caudle

      Lévis-Simon Carpentier Thanks! I couldn’t remember if they had been banned or not.

  28. Jim Bowser

    Almost all the participants use the suits. So, the playing field or swimming field is equal.

  29. avatar

    We have a 10-year-old daughter and we got a TYR suit as a gift. If it was not for that, she would not have it. We will not be able to replace it. In the meantime, she uses it as I would have for such an expensive item to go to waste.

    She is asthmatic and on doctor instructions we have to keep her chest dry especially in winter months. During these months we use old style suits during morning heats as she can quickly change between races and stay dry when the air is cold.

    Our deal was that she could have one when she swims Level 3 times and she received the gift from our family when she reached that milestone last year. (In the USA it is 10 & U AAA times).

    I do not think there is any benefit. Having said that she looks pretty good in it (as long as it lasts) and it gives her confidence as she is not the odd one out at the blocks. At age groups she swims in the heats with the 12-14-year old swimmers. We are heading for AAAA times this year…..

  30. Mackenzie Holden

    Philip Vranić Mike without the tech suit? Hard pass

    • Philip Vranić

      I agree with the reasoning but racing with those suits is just brutal

  31. Nur Regina

    What a great idea! Bring back the old school suit! ?

  32. avatar
    Mark T. DeNucci, Sr.

    Race the way the ancient Greeks would have probably raced: In the nude.

  33. avatar
    Jim Griffin

    Let’s stop being able to buy your race, every thing else being equal. All suits should be the same, period.

Author: Kristy Kinzer

avatar
Kristy Kinzer is a 2014 graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI and served two years as an assistant coach and aquatics director for the Calvin Knights. She made the All-American academic honors list in 2013 and was a captain of the women's team her senior year. She will pursue a master's degree at Western Michigan with an exercise physiology concentration beginning fall of 2017. She aspires to start a varsity women's triathlon team upon finishing her degree.

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