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A Stroke Ahead On Way Back To Future

Aug 3, 2009  - Craig Lord

The future of swimming starts today. Britain, London 2012 Olympic host, is to recruit a "world-class technical consultant", full-time, from October 1 to help the national swimming team cope with the transition from a technology driven era back to a technique-based sport when all current suits are banned from the race pool next year.

The ferocious death rattle of polyurethane bodysuits that will be banned by the end of the year ensured that the 13th world championships in Rome will go down in the history book of swimming as an "artificially assisted" aberration. 

As the curtain closed last night on a circus maximus of performances and unexpected results buoyed by non-textiles suits that aid speed, buoyancy and endurance, the tally of global standards stood at 43. That took to 174 the number of global standards to have fallen since the Nasa-designed Speedo LZR Racer launched suit wars in February 2008 and introduced non-textile fabrics to the race pool for the first time.

FINA, which receives just over $1m from Speedo a year, turned a blind eye to a rule that disallowed the use of any device that aids speed, buoyancy and endurance. In a comical twist to the sad suits saga, that Speedo $1m has gone straight out of FINA coffers in Rome: each world record carries a US$25,000 bonus. The bill to FINA is $1.075 million. 

The rush on records has made the breaking of them meaningless. Rare is it in any sport where 40 national records fall, including three world and five European standards, and then are dismissed as irrelevant by the national performance director and head coach. Britain director Michael Scott said: "The records at this meet are not relevant ... we have to look at other comparisons to see where progress is being made."

He noted that Britain had 27 finalists in 25 Olympic events, a record impact by any Britain national team at world or Olympic level. His squad was among those, with Germany, that stepped up in Rome when it came to building a depth of podium chasers. Britain finished third on the points table that reflects numbers and places gained in finals:

Top 10:

  • USA 820
  • AUS 568
  • GBR 468
  • GER 340
  • CHN 337
  • RUS 306
  • FRA 303
  • JPN 303
  • BRA 300
  • ITA 297

Britain will only truly know where it stands in "crunch year" 2010, said Scott. He was “disappointed” not to see more rookies stepping forward.  On the road to London 2012, he and Britain's American head coach Denis Pursley expected a breakthrough at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next October.

By then, FINA’s new suit rules will have been well tested. From January 1, men must wear briefs or shorts, and women a suit that extends from shoulder strap to a cut above the knee. All suits must be textile, the definition of which was to have been delivered to suit makers in September but, SwimNews learned on the way home from Rome has already been given to suit makers. The move will produce a wave of winners and losers.

Among winners will be the likes of American Michael Phelps, swimmers who are already used to putting in massive amounts of core-strength work designed to optimise their angle of buoyancy and efficiency in water. Pursley indicated that the suits had narrowed and even closed the gap between the best swimmers in the world and some who would previously been part players. 

He said: "The suits provide advantages for those with training deficiencies. There's core strength and body streamlining, It takes countless hours over weeks, months and years to achieve results from that kind of work. Thirty minutes can do it by putting a suit on." That was reflected in a medals table of 30 nations, a spread that reduced the tallies of the aquatic superpowers, the US and Australia, to about a third of what might have been expected. 

Records were the tip of an iceberg of progress. Where there were two women capable of swimming inside 1min in the 100m backstroke 18 months ago, now there are 18; where there were three men under 2mins 10 over 200m breaststroke in February last year, now there are 30.

Some of the standards set at the Foro Italico over the past eight days beggar belief, among established stars and previous unknowns. Ariana Kukors, of the US, and her Jaked01 suit made 100% from polyurethane wiped more than 4sec off her best 200m medley to set a world record of 2mins 06.15. No woman has ever swum inside 2mins 10 in a textile suit and the only woman who had broken the barrier before 2008 was Wu Yanyan, of China and subsequently banned for steroid use.

After eclipsing Ian Thorpe's remaining world record, in the 400m freestyle, Paul Biedermann, of Germany, improved by huge margins to defeat Michael Phelps, break his 200m freestyle world record in a time 2sec faster than 2000 Olympic champion Thorpe ever swam. Nadja Higl, of Serbia, improved 8sec on a 200m breaststroke to rocket from outside the top 100 in the world to become world champion. The position she rose from means that she will never have been tested by anti-doping agencies out of competition.

Pursley, in common with the policies of the US and Australia, will advise his charges to put their supersuits in a bag of souvenirs and work towards the future immediately. After Rebecca Adlington, Olympic champion, finished fourth in the 800m freestyle on Saturday in a race that saw teammate Joanne Jackson take silver, she said: “I turned to Jo and said ‘this is the last time we’ll wear suits. [bodysuits]. I can’t wait.”

Among losers will be swimmers of heavier build, including swimmers with relatively poor fitness levels, who were effectively buoyed by suits that trap air and carry the athlete along on a cushion of air that optimises body position and makes swimmers porpoise-like by anchoring together various parts of the body in one streamlined shape.

The list of losers also includes suit makers who will no longer be able to charge £350 and more for a single suit that loses its effect after several wears and rips easily. One suit maker said: “We will lose a lot of money because we cannot sell the suits we’ve made and the suits coming in will sell for much less. Meanwhile we have to wait to get the final specifications for the suit we can cut and our R&D people twiddle their thumbs.” 

US maker TYR believed that it may take a $1m hit, while the figure for Speedo is rumoured to be double that as its LZR, after $6m of research and development, heads for the shredder in terms of elite racing is concerned. Some suit makers have already warned federations that they sponsor that the pot of money flowing from them will be smaller or may even dry up next year.

Time for federations to reinvent themselves, talk to power companies, talk to energy providers, water companies, car firms, whatever it takes. The relationship with suit makers is an important one - one which demands of FINA that it does its homework and understands its game - but if the links become too close, poor and destructive decisions can emerge from the conflict of interest, as FINA and swimming have learned at great cost in the past year. 

Pursley, meanwhile, spoke of the need not just to look for the rush of youth that will challenge for a place at a home Games, but for the need to look after home heroes already in Britain's midst.  Asked about the weight of expectation now being felt by Rebecca Adlington, a "Miss Nobody" in her own words, going into Beijing and a very popular Miss Somebody coming out, Pursley said: "It was not only the pressure of being Olympic gold medallist but the pressure of being the only one in the race without the suit. I think she could have probably have handled any one of those but you put the two together and she was carrying a heavy load.

"But she is not only a great athlete but also a great person and has tremendous strength of character. She'll be back and I think she will turn this into a great positive. She'll use it to help make it better next time around. We haven't seen the best of Becky yet," said Pursley.

Scott revealed 90-95% of swimmers made their choice of which suit to wear when they arrived in Rome following trials with different swimwear at their training camp in Sardinia, with a number changing their minds as the competition went on. Most chose a new shiny number to survive in waters awash with such apparel.

There were a number of "wardrobe malfunctions"  and suit splits, Pursley confirmed, adding: "It was a challenge for them, it was a challenge for all the swimmers at the meet - the vast majority did not have those suits prior to the meet and did not have a significant amount of opportunity in the weeks or months preceding the meet to train or race in them. 

"It's not just a matter of getting access to the suit, most of the swimmers in this meet are wearing them for the first time. Race plans are out of the window, the suit changes stroke rate and pace and they are trying them for the first time in a World Championships."