I’m always interested to learn that the Midwest has done itself proud. That would appear to be the case in the very hot topic of the LZR (pronounced “laser” swimsuit designed by Speedo and currently showcased in the June 30, 2008, issue of Newsweek with Cindy McCain on the cover.
The controversy over the swimsuit, made of high-density microfiber and lined with polyurethane panels, which appears to be contributing to a rash of World Records being set by those wearing them, has Iowa roots.
It seems that a professor of physiology at Ames (Iowa State University) named Rick Sharp, a former collegiate swimmer himself, wrote two papers questioning Speedo’s performance claims for the LZR’s predecessor, the Speedo Fastskin suit. Speedo did not take offense at Professor Sharp’s comments, but, instead, called him up in 2004 and invited him to lead a team of outside experts that would design a better suit.
Sharp recalls, in the Newsweek article, “I laughed and said, ‘Have you read my papers?'”
Speedo had, indeed, read Sharp’s papers. They had taken his doubts into consideration and, says Jason Rance, Chief of Speedo’s Aqualab global R&D Center in England, “He was asking all the right questions.”
NASA fluid-mechanics engineer Stephen Wilkinson was also enlisted to use wind tunnels to detect surface friction on spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere technology to blow air across a variety of fabrics at 63 mph, the simulated speed of a swimmer as fast as Michael Phelps, this year’s American gold medal hopeful.
Samples were stitched together and tried out on Iowa State University swimmers. Says Sharp, “We had one suit that looked great on paper. But then, when we dove into the pool, it ballooned out like a parachute.”
The polyurethane panels that act like a girdle to streamline the swimmers bodies also had to be redesigned so that the girdle structure wasn’t too far up the rib cage, therefore inhibiting swimmers’ breathing.
Whatever the case, the LZR, which had been previously approved for use at the Beijing Olympics, has sparked a storm of protest from competitors, who claim that it constitutes an unfair advantage for other swimmers. The Speedo people, for their part, don’t expect to market many of the $290 a pair men’s jammers nor the $550 full bodysuit. They are meant for true athletes like Phelps and could be considered “the couture version” of Speedo, according to Warnaco Group President Helen McCluskey. The $40 to $78 knock-off versions with stars-and-stripes motifs that will be marketed to little kids: that’s where the market is, with 300,000 kids on swim teams.
Meanwhile, even endorsers of other swimsuits seem to be defecting in droves to the new LZR Suit to get the “rocket” effect that NASA was aiming for. One prominent endorser of a competitor, Olympic medallist Erik Vendt, who previously shilled for TYR, the second-largest U.S. swimwear maker, has switched to the Speedo LZR Racer. A Japanese swimmer under contract to Mizuno just set a world record wearing a LZR. Speedo spent tens of millions developing the LZR Racer over the last four years and, says U.S. swim coach Mark Schubert, “every world record is in jeopardy. The suit is definitely a factor.”