Fast as Skin Be

Writer: 
March 31, 2003

 

Two years ago, the Duke swimming and diving teams arrived at the ACC Championship meet, walked in, and realized something was not right: Most of the other swimmers were wearing what appeared to be wetsuits. "We were like, 'Oh no, we're in trouble here,' " says Lauren Hancock, a junior. "'They've got the Fastskins.' "

Fastskins in action: suitable for competition

Fastskins in action: suitable for competition. Jon Gardiner.

The Speedo Fastskin is a paradox of sorts. It is the most technologically advanced swimsuit in the world, and yet, in design, it is a return to nature. The Fastskin does things, so Speedo claims, that our skin cannot. "It replicates the most microscopic processes of sharkskin," says Craig Brommer, vice president of marketing at Speedo. "It does exactly what theirs does."

Hancock had good reason to worry. The Duke teams were wearing the Speedo Aquablade, regarded by most as the next-best thing. But, in her senior year of high school, Hancock had bought her own Fastskin. "You can see the water bead up and shoot off it. And when you put it on, it squeezes your muscles around," she says. "We were at a huge disadvantage that day."

If you ask officials at FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur), the governing body for aquatic sports worldwide, who say what is fair and what isn't, they will tell you that the Fastskin isn't really faster or more buoyant or anything else that would help a swimmer swim fast. People just think it is. Never mind the broken records or the fact that twenty-eight of the thirty-three gold medals won in Sydney at the 2000 Olympic games were won in Fastskins. Never mind the army of engineers and scientists, the shark experts, the human-body scans conducted on all shapes of bodies on three different continents, the speed tests on Olympic swimmers, all of whom went faster in the Fastskin. And try to ignore the hype: the Fastskin, so intricately woven, so hydrodynamic, was fast becoming the most dominant suit in swimming.

In the end, the hype won. Everyone bought the talk and, if they could afford it, the suits. It was marketing genius. As natural swimsuits go, you couldn't beat a shark's. It offered the science of speed with an image to match; sharks are fast, faster than seals and dolphins and all of the fish they eat. But relative to those creatures, sharks are not terribly streamlined (think Hammerhead). So, of course, it had to be that skin, tough-textured with tiny v-shaped denticles and millions of microscopic vortices funneling water away.

The concept could hardly be more satisfying, and, as it turns out, the concept, not the fabric, might be the fastest part of all. If the actual technology does not aid a swimmer, as FINA has ruled, believing it does works just as well. In 2000, the same year the suits were approved, world records fell one after another. Olympians like Ian Thorpe and Tom Malchow and Inge De Brujin shattered world best times. Then went the Duke records. Since 2000, the first year anyone on the team had a Fastskin, Duke swimmers set top times in more than half of the forty-two separate events.

Having coached Duke swimming, men's and women's, for twenty-two years, Bob Thompson has witnessed a succession of changes that, as he puts it, have taken the simplicity out of the sport. Some were ultimately positive, helping things evolve in ways fair for all: "Take lane lines. That was huge. Before, the pool was like an ocean, it was so rough." The Fastskins are different, he says; they're an improvement, but only the wealthiest teams get the payoff. "You're talking about a jump from a suit that cost $40 to one that costs as much as $240. A lot of Division II programs, even some in Division I, can't afford them. I balked the first two years. But kids would go out and buy their own, or, if they didn't have one, they'd borrow a buddy's," Thompson says. "It was a drastic mistake by the swimming world in accepting them."

Before Fastskins, swimsuits weren't such an obsession, because there wasn't much to obsess over. Skimpiness was the rule; shaved skin creates minimal drag, and it has nerve endings--skin, and only skin, can feel, which is important both for positioning the body and for "gripping" the water. The only things keeping swimsuits around at all were common decency and the need for tighter packaging; we are not naturally so streamlined. Any company making swimwear, the kind for racing in, was in a race to make it more comfortable or better looking or just smaller. Speedo led the way. The brand itself had become practically synonymous with teeny. Speedos were little, and little was good.

However, one very big problem loomed. Once swimsuit design had reached its critical boundaries--swimsuits can only get so small--designers had nowhere left to go. In terms of sporting goods, swimming has never been a highly lucrative market--no shoes, no pads, no helmets--and it was becoming even less so. The question arose, if progress means less, not more, and if suits were already as light and tight and comfy as could be, how does one improve on the product?

The answer was fairly simple. If you wanted to change the suit, you had to change the sport. So, in search of greater surface area, Speedo did the exact opposite of skimpy, in fact, the opposite of everything it and its competitors had been doing all along. It took the feel out of swimming. "It took the shave out of 'shave and taper,' " says Thompson. Speedo reasoned that if you were swimming faster, you wouldn't care whether you could feel the water or not. Speedo invented "the Fastskin."

This year, at the ACC Championship meet, Duke women's records were blown out of the water by a standout freshman named Katie Ness. She led the team with three school records in individual events and was a member of three record-setting relay teams. "You definitely have a technological advantage with the Fastskin," says Ness. "It makes you float a lot higher in the water, and that makes it easier to complete your stroke."

Speedo advises that the Fastskin not be worn repeatedly as doing so may stretch the Lycra; most teams, including Duke, save them for championship meets. But something so good is hard to resist: "I wore mine for every race at the ACCs. I never took it off," Ness says. "But I've also been training harder than I ever have in my life. It's not like you can just put it on and automatically go faster."

Nancy Hogshead '81 holds the oldest records in the book. She set them in an old Nike "thin strap" made of polyester that covered her torso and was cut above her hips, the most advanced suit of her day. She shaved her arms and legs and she wore a rubber cap over her blond hair. An All-American and an Olympic gold-medalist, Hogshead was the fastest female swimmer Duke has ever seen. But Ness is close. Competing at the ACC's in the 200-meter butterfly, she missed Hogshead's time by only eleven-hundredths of a second. "I had no idea I was that close," she says.

The old adage that life's battles go not to the strongest or the fastest but ultimately to the ones who think they can, could be amended, perhaps, to include that it helps to believe one has the best gear on the market. "Or at least better than everyone else's," says Richard Keefe, sports psychologist in Duke Medical Center's Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Research Laboratory. Keefe consults for several teams at Duke and at colleges across the ACC, helping golfers concentrate on putts and basketball players on free throws. "When you get something new," he says, "there's a whole part of your brain that performs this valence and that actually enhances your focus on whatever you're doing. It's sort of like getting a new girlfriend. Your mind is focused on the relationship. Your brain reacts to novel targets. It's what's known as your 'alertness response.'"

Technology, it seems, is only what you make of it. The real thing, the truly fast stuff, is called confidence.