Four years ago, the Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha began with a showdown. The world's two best swimmers dueled in arguably the world's most grueling race.
Buoyed by a frenzied crowd, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte splashed and dashed to the wall.
The 2012 Trials started with the same two stars battling in the same race, the 400 meter individual medley. They were separated by the exact same margin — 0.83 seconds. But something Monday night was different — aside from Lochte winning.
In 2008, both times beat the world record. In 2012, neither came close; the winning time was almost two seconds slower.
One big reason: Look at their uniforms.
Gone are the superhero-style rubber body suits that took swimming by storm in 2008.
The 2012 suits are still high-tech — you won't find them at the local sporting goods store. But most athletes and coaches say they have restored legitimacy to the record books.
“The less material we have, the better,” Lochte said. “I feel like in 2008 anyone could put on those full body suits and be fast. ... Now you notice the real swimmers, the people that actually put in the hard work, because that suit is not really going to make much of a difference.”
For decades, swimmers assumed two things about their gear: Skin was faster than fabric; and fabric was the only option for swimsuits.
Then in 2008, Speedo unveiled a suit that looked and performed very differently from its ancestors. The LZR Racer stretched from ankle to shoulder and was so tight it required assistance to put on.
Moreover, manufacturers bonded polyurethane — a rubberized slick surface — to the fabric on parts of the body susceptible to drag.
It wasn't just the next stage in swimsuit evolution. It was a game-changer.
“We never really thought of drag reduction as having as much effect on the performance as it did,” said Rick Sharp, an Iowa State professor of exercise kinesiology who consulted with Speedo on the LZR Racer suits.
“You get that real sudden change and it just shocks everybody. That's what happened.”
“Technological doping,” is how Italy's team coach described the LZR Racer.
At the '08 U.S. Trials, breaststroker Brendan Hansen said, “The only way to get noticed was with a world record.” Omaha witnessed nine.
The fireworks continued at the Beijing Olympics, where 25 world records fell. Swimmers who competed in the LZR Racer won more than 90 percent of the medals.
Manufacturers didn't stop there. In 2009, they produced suits made almost exclusively of polyurethane. Not only did they resist water, Sharp said, they improved buoyancy.
At the '09 World Championships, 43 world records went down.
“A lot of folks thought the sport was getting to be more about the suit than it was about the athlete,” Sharp said. “Things started really getting out of control.”
FINA, swimming's governing body, responded with restrictions that dialed back the technology.
Effective Jan. 1, 2010, men's suits could no longer be ankle to shoulder — they could cover only waist to knee. Women's suits had to stop at the knee, too.
More important: FINA mandated that suits be composed entirely of textiles. No more water-resistant polyurethane.
Two years later, garments are no longer the hot topic at the Trials.
“It was definitely a very interesting year in 2008-09 when the whole world was watching,” said Rebecca Soni, Olympic gold medal winner. “Close the book, we've moved on. I really like where we are right now.”
Not everyone agrees.
Tyler Clary, who finished third behind Lochte and Phelps in Monday's 400 IM, said that if fabric is faster than skin, then why not wear as much fabric as possible? Swimming received enormous exposure in 2008-09, helping raise the sport's profile internationally.
“Any time there's a large leap in the technology in any sort of sport, there's going to be a period where records are falling like crazy,” Clary said. “Everybody's going to jump to say ‘Oh my God, the technology's doing everything.'
“But there still has to be a swimmer in the suit. The suit's not going to swim itself.”
Innovation didn't halt when FINA cracked down. Among the newest advancements is Speedo's FASTSKIN3 Racing System, which included a redesign of the goggles and cap. Computer models showed that the face — the leading edge of the body — was the No. 1 point of drag in the water.
Now the cap fits tighter. And the goggles come with hydroscopic lenses that provide swimmers with 180 degrees of peripheral vision.
“For key races, they're going to love those things,” said Kate Wilton, Speedo USA's Director of Performance. “They will be able to maintain their body position and not have to turn heads to see where everybody is.”
Are these tweaks noticeable from the CenturyLink Center seats? No.
But the difference between second and third — making the Olympic team or watching at home — could be 0.01 seconds. If a manufacturer can reduce drag by even the smallest amounts, it could decide a race.
Gregg Troy, U.S. men's team coach, said the old swimsuits broke down “glass ceilings,” enabling swimmers to reach times they never thought possible. But returning to a simpler suit shifted attention back to technique and mechanics, making the sport more “true.”
“There aren't as many world records,” Troy said. “But the ones that have been broken are premiere now — they really mean something.”
World-Herald correspondent Steve Beideck contributed to this report.
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