Rest In Peace, Polyurethane swim suits. We bid thee adieu. (February 13, 2008-May 22, 2010)
As Sunday turned to Monday, Masters Swimming became the last major governing body to outlaw polyurethane suits.
From the launch of the Speedo LZR line, the first major suit to incorporate polyurethane panels to reduce drag, to the closing of the US Masters Swimming Short Course Nationals on Sunday where competitors were outfitted neck-to-ankles in the stuff, swimming has had a love-hate relationship with the suits.
We loved to see the world records, to the tune of over 108 in 2008 and 147 in 2009. Think about those numbers. A world record was broken, on average, every 2 and a half days. Each record was broken, on average, 6 or 7 times over a 2 year period, yet in that 2 year period, most swimmers had four big meets for which they tapered. At the 2009 World Championships, there were 43 World Records broken in 40 events. And that doesn’t include the second place finishers who cleared the former records. It became a race within the race. Suddenly, simply winning a race didn’t seem enough. If it didn’t include a world record, the victory was somehow cheapened. An almost uncountable number of Masters, National, High School, State, Team, and other association records were broken in the suits.
That’s where the hate comes in. Greats of the not-so-past didn’t seem so great anymore. Grant Hackett’s World Record in the 800 LCM Freestyle stoppd for 4 years and 2 days, until a Chinese Swimmer named Zhang Lin broke it at the 2009 World Championships. By over 6 seconds. The second place swimmer cleared the mark by 3 seconds. In the women’s version of the same event, Janet Evans had one of the great untouchable records in swimming, which she set at the 1989 Pan-Pac Championships. In 2008, Rebecca Addlington crushed the mark by over 2 seconds.
On a more local level, when $100,000 world record bonuses aren’t on the table, it increased the gap between the haves and have-nots. In a sport that is already stigmatized by the elitest, wealthy, country-club persona, telling swimmers that they couldn’t legitimately compete without spending $700 on a suit demoralized the masses and devalued the effects of hard-work by both swimmers and coaches. The suits corrected flaws in technique and made up for a lack of attention to detail.
The assault on the record-books created instant swimming celebrities, and brought swimming to the forefront of mainstream media. Highlights aired on ESPN, CNN, and even local news stations. Tens of thousands upon tens of thousands were introduced to the sport on it’s highest stages, and families were glued to their TV sets to see what could happen. The appeal of the sport definitely expanded in the era of polyurethane.
But within the community, there was a disgust with the suits. Love them or hate them, everyone was tired of hearing about them. Championship meets became less about who had the best taper, and more about which team had access to the best suits. Case in point, the 2009 NCAA Men’s National Championship, where there was a not-so-minor uproar about Auburn topping Texas because their suits were better and they weren’t locked in to a suit contract.
There was even a divide in age. Phelps hated the suits. So much so, he even risked World Championships simply to prove a point that he would rather lose in less than win in the rubber. To prove that he didn’t need anything more than drive and hard work to win. In the 100 fly, he rose up and the risk paid off big-time. In the 200 free, it didn’t.
Rowdy Gaines, who is effectively the Michael Phelps of masters’ swimming, loves the suits. He loves the way it makes him feel in the water. And like many Masters swimmers, who tend to have more disposable income than your average high-schooler, he liked the way it made him look. The polyurethane suits corrected minor flaws in physique much the way that it corrected minor flaws in technique. To a 40-something, that’s worth the price tag.
More than anything, the suits were divisive. Accusations were rampant about who was “on the suit,” and who was winning clean. Parents who refused to spend a month’s grocery bills on a swimsuit didn’t care about their child’s future, though I might argue they were more concerned about their child’s character. In a time FINA was trying to expand it’s programs to new countries, both through competitive programs and water safety initiatives, the suits seemed to be sending a different message: that it takes more than talent, drive, focus, and a few thousand gallons of water to be an Olympic swimmer. All of a sudden, the gritty hard-work that swimmers often use to hold themself in higher esteem than the glamour sports was giving way to the suits.
The suits were leaving the swimming world in pieces. And for that, may we ask that the suits rest in pieces. (Too Soon?)