Connect with Us:  

Biedermann Buoyant The Morning After

Jul 29, 2009  - Craig Lord

The morning after the night on which he hammered home to FINA why the suits must go, Paul Biedermann was in fine form. Smiling and relaxed, he sat in the shade of his suit sponsor's umbrella at the Foro Italico and said that in 2010 and forever more he would keep safe his arena X-Glide in a bag marked "Warning: It should serve as a memory of what can happen if we do not look at what technology can do in our sport, if FINA does not control [it]."

Imagine that: a swimmer sits in the house of his sponsor and says "the suit is amazing ... but the sooner it is sunk the better", and the sponsor is happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the athlete because the sponsor told FINA the same thing back in early 2008. The message fell on deaf ears back then. A 1:42.00 200 freestyle and a crushing defeat of the greatest Olympian of all time should ensure that FINA ears and eyes remain open to storm warnings in the years ahead.

Arena boss Christiano Portas wandered over with a copy of Gazzetta Dello Sport. Biedermann, who wore the arena X-Glide for the first time in Rome and had previously worn the textile R-Evolution, was delighted with the full-page advert celebrating his success. Go(ld)! Paul! Go(ld)! screamed the heading over full recognition of the athlete, his suit, his time, his achievement. "That's great," said Biedermann.

Great too, he noted, if FINA sorts the suits mess out by returning to textile; great too if they mark his world records and all others set since February 2008 with an asterisk or some other notation that notes the context of 18 months of aberration in the sport: "artificially aided by suits".

On Phelps, Biedermann said: "I have deep respect for him. I hope we can meet each other in races again and that one day we can talk some day and talk about this and have a normal conversation. I don't think he blames me." Phelps had not stuck around after the race, said Biedermann, because he had a job to do: the semis of the 200m 'fly. Noting that the suits rob swimmers of recognition for all the hard work put in, he said: "I feel fine with the FINA result and I also agree with Bob Bowman and I don't have a problem with having my world records marked ... it would be really good to do that."

What of the move by Bowman and Phelps to boycott all further international competition until FINA gets it right on suits? "When Michael Phelps is really doing that, FINA should react. It is the hammer [he hit his hand down like a hammer, but "der hammer" in German means "its great"]. When the best swimmer in the world says that, that's amazing. It's really great."

Suit wars that started with the LZR will end with that suit going down to an X-Glide and other apparel that took on and met the challenge of providing the "fastest suit in the world". That challenge has work against the interests of swimmers and swimming and some suit makers said so all along, but just like swimmers responded to the world delivered by FINA. 

Biedermann put some of his gain down to the suit and some down to the hard work he does with coach Frank Embacher in Halle. His gains have been vast enough to have attracted doping questions. "I am absolutely clean," he said, noting the 20-plus tests by WADA, NADA and "not so many" by FINA agents and the five blood controls he has had so far this year. On camp in Sierra Nevada, Spain, he supplied samples to three different testing agencies on the same day.

"I thought it was alot," said Biedermann. "Buit it's ok, it is what we have to do." The mild bout of what was suspected to have been glandular fever back in February had required him to go through a 4-week recovery period after a long and hard short-course season that had ultimately proved "too much".

After Rome he will take a three-week break before joining the German team for a week of bonding at Potsdam's excellence centre for "everything but not swimming". Germany would be a force to reckon with at European Championships in Budapest next year. "We have a great spirit in our team now. There's camaraderie with each other. Last year we didn't have the suits that we felt comfortable in. Now we have no mental blockage." The German team had learned lessons from Britta Steffen last year, when she stepped up in her "inferior" adidas suits of the moment, compared to the polyurethane-panel compression-loaded LZR, and raced to two gold medals over 50m and 100m freestyle.

Her mental toughness had helped Germany "get our motivation back", said Biedermann, who spends his time relaxing in between training sessions by playing computer war games loaded with battle strategies of the kind he will need to employ, perhaps, when next he steps up alongside Phelps with the two men in textile shorts.

Biedermann said that he looked forward to the moment. "For the moment I'm really, really happy to become world champion and to break the world record." London 2012 is the long-term target, via defending his 400m European title and seeking to gain the 200m title in Budapest.

How had he and Embacher managed to work out splits and target times given the influence of the X-Glide? "We have an idea from the training we do where I will be but I am a swimmer for the big competition. There I can go over my limits. We did no tests in suits in training. I train in briefs."

But the morning when the package containing a silvery bluish suit had arrived from Italy, Biedermann, still unsure as to whether he would ever use it in racing, was like a kid at Christmas. He recalled the moment he took the X-Glide out of its box: "I thought it smelled a bit. I took it to the pool and to training and dived in ... My coach said 'what are you doing ... you're so fast!" I just jumped in and felt it was like a speedboat. I just lay on top of the water and the suit was really fast."

On that basis, Embacher, knowing that Biedermann, a triple European junior champion in 2004, already had a fast back-end to his races, told his charge: "If you are .2 quicker than Phelps at 150, you can beat him." Biedermann turned into the last length 0.41sec up on the American but not even Embacher could have predicted what happened next: just as he had gone 1.27sec faster the pace of Ian Thorpe coming down the last 50m of a world-record 400m freestyle final on Sunday,  Biedermann raced 0.81sec quicker than Phelps on the last of four lengths. 

How was that possible? "It feels really good in the suit," said Biedermann. "Normally you move your arms and legs in a race and at some point you are waiting to go down, go under," he makes a motion with his arm indicating that fatigue causes the body to sink and create more drag. The sinking feeling at the end of races is common to all but the fittest athletes with the best natural and honed angle of buoyancy in the water are those that win races. "With this suit you move your arms and legs and that's all that happens the whole way," said Biedermann.  

He said that he had "felt a lot of pain" when he had climbed out of the water, especially after the 200m. But in the water "you just move your arms and legs and are able to just swim". And confine Thorpe and Phelps to history? "History in the suit," he replied. 

When textile suits return, he still had room for improvement, with better starts, turns and technique. He was already looking forward to the rematch with Phelps. But what targets would he chase now that the times on the book were suit-assisted and  and how would he cope with the psychology of chasing targets he may never reach?

"The first time [race] will be really difficult," said Biedermann. "You look at the times here and say 'wow' but we have to keep in mind that the suit really, really helped a lot. If you think about [give it enough thought] and you know where it [belongs] is, I don't think this will be a psychological problem for me."

The best that FINA could do, said Biedermann, was to set the suit-assisted records apart. "It would be fantastic to mark them in some way. The problem is how much you go back to a time of 100% textiles."January 31, 2007 would be a good place to start. Tough, but attainable targets. And one thing would then be clear: Biedermann, who today proved himself a fine ambassador for swimming, Germany, arena and fair play, will be among those at the helm of the shoal once more able to swim - not sur or glide - their way to an accurate and meaningful record of history.