Much Ado About Neoprene

By David

This week I received an email from the American Swim Coaches Association. It copied an article, written by Craig Lord, discussing the dangers of swim suit development. Actually that’s not true. The article doesn’t discuss anything. It’s a genuine Craig Lord rant. You may not be aware of this but Craig Lord can out-rant anyone on any subject. This time his focus is the development of “LZR-type” swimsuits. According to Lord we have just entered the era of steroid-suits. A time when the suits swimmers wear will determine their success. Bubble wrapped zombies will soon be able to beat us all.

Lord’s indulgence is classic Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. I’m told that phrase “is often used today in reference to persistent engagement in a futile activity or attacking imaginary enemies. At one point in the novel, Don Quixote fights windmills that he imagines to be giants. Quixote sees the windmill blades as the giant’s arms”. Lord too sees windmill blades as giant arms. Only in his case they’re wrapped in Neoprene.

For some reason Lord tries to exclude Arena and Speedo from the nasty group of swim suit manufacturers. Their suits “enhance performance” but it seems in a good way compared to other manufacturers. The really bad windmill is a guy called Marcin Sochacki, the CEO of Rocket Science Sports. Quite why Speedo’s version of “enhanced performance” should be more acceptable than Marcin Sochacki’s I have no idea. Lord does not provide us with that insight.

Apart from trying to panic us all into an assault on his windmills with giant arms, I think Lord’s point is that at a meeting to be held in late February between FINA and 21 swimsuit manufacturers, FINA had better make sure a set of standards is agreed upon that prevents swimsuit manufacturers taking their slippery, buoyancy developments too far. That seems to be a fair enough goal. FINA should prevent suits inflating or wing-foils deploying at speeds above 1.5 meters per second.

But there is not sufficient evidence to support Lord’s view that wearing some suit “is no different than knowingly popping steroids.” That is way, way over the top. It is the feature of the Lord article that generates the most disgust. His position diminishes the fine feats of modern athletes. What else do these two paragraphs mean?

As we approach the last big week of international swimming this year, we know that 91 world records have fallen, 54 of them long-course. Was the status of Gross, Darnyi, Dolan, Biondi, Jaeger, Evans, O’Neill, Meagher, Perkins, Morales etc not enhanced because their achievements were considered as extraordinary and not just one of 100 such swims in one year? Add up every world l/c record broken in Olympic years 1980 to 1996 and you get to 93 (including some swims we now know to have been driven by steroids and other performance-enhancing substances). Gosh, how boring it all must have been. Hold on – no it wasn’t. It was fabulous. Swimming and breaking world records can be fabulous again.”

Modern suit manufacturers “lead the sport of swimming further down the slippery slope of shattered contracts, loss of faith, divorce, descent and on towards the bottomless pit of the doping suit.” They sweep “some swimmers past rivals who under other circumstances would still be out in front.

For Mr. Lords benefit, let me explain what’s wrong with all that emotive claptrap. I have been privileged this winter to sit and watch the three European World Cup Meets in Moscow, Stockholm and Berlin. In the process, seven or eight world records were broken. They were all fabulous. The underwater work of Bal’s 50 backstroke, the tough determination of Marieke Guehrer in the Berlin 50 butterfly, the lightning speed of Therese Alshammar in the same event in Stockholm, the pace and strength of Paul Biedermann in the 200 freestyle, the wonderful rhythm and tempo of Cameron Van Der Burgh’s breaststroke and the sophistication of Peter Marshall’s 100 backstroke; all a feast of high class swimming. It is abhorrent to see these athletes compared to Evans and Biondi and in some way portrayed as inferior. Lord has no right to do that. It devalues both generations, but not quite as much as it devalues Lord.

I wonder which World Records Lord considers diminished most? Which ones are not worthy of the title World Record? If you make the accusation Mr. Lord, please have the guts to provide the examples. Or is it Phelps’ Olympic record that’s stained because he wore a Speedo LZR? Perhaps Lochte’s World Record was the result of his suit and had nothing to do with the thousands of kilometers set by his father in Daytona Beach. Perhaps Oussama Mellouli only beat Grant Hackett because of his superior suit. Lord is just a bloody joke.

I was in Atlanta recently with a swimmer competing in his first US National Short Course Championship. During the week Skuba improved his short course 50 yards freestyle by 0.47 seconds and his long course 100 meters freestyle by 1.34 seconds. He wore a Speedo LZR suit in both races. But how dare Lord or anyone else suggest the suit produced the result. Not when I’ve sat and watched Skuba swim 100 kilometers a week; week after week. Not when his Atlanta results were obvious in training a week before we left for the meet. Skuba’s work and talent produced his Atlanta result, not a swim suit. And that’s true too of Phelps, Alshammar, Lochte, Marshall and all the rest.

Swimwatch wishes the February FINA meeting well. However, we do it without diminishing the World Records achieved in 2008 by hard working and deserving athletes.