Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Deep Water

There's been a lot of commotion in the swimming world of late. It was almost exactly one year ago that Michael Phelps made history as the winningest Olympian after earning 8 gold medals in the sport of swimming in the Beijing Olympics. During his campaign, the world witnessed some pretty incredible races, including Phelp's individual head-to-head with his Serbian competitor, out-touching him by .01 of a second to capture his 7th gold, and the jaw-dropping 400 free relay, when teammate Jason Lezak blew the French team's body-length lead out of the water for Phelp's 2nd gold.

But with the triumph has come some turbulent waters. The commencement of the World Swimming Championships has brought attention to some troubling matters that causes the governing body of swimming, FINA, some concern. Over the course of the last 4 days, an astonishing 22 world records have been shattered. While breaking records is normally something to celebrate, such a large number over the course of less than a week is suspicious. Similarly, 25 world records were broken just under a year ago at the week-long Beijing Games. Are the athletes getting that much faster? Or is there perhaps another explanation?

Could it be the $600 polyurethane suit that corsets the torso into a streamline, reduces drag by 10% more than other leading high-tech suits, increases buoyancy, and uses special fabric to repel water away from the swimmer?

FINA has been under a lot of pressure from the swimming community to have some regulation on the suits the athletes are allowed to wear in competition. As recently as yesterday, FINA came to the agreement to ban all suits that reached below the kneecap for men and women, and banned any suits that went above the waist for men. All suits are also to be made of "textiles" although FINA hasn't commented on what qualifies as a "textile" yet.

This new ruling has been a long time coming, and, when implemented, will force swimmers to rely on talent and training alone, rather than technological advances in swimwear. In age group meets, one of the lower-levels of competition, the USA Swimming rulebook approve of

"swimsuit models ... made of full textile material such as
lycra or nylon [and] are also acceptable as long as they have no sleeves and that double layers are stuck together....

1. For female swimmers, the swimsuit shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulders or
past the pelvis, and
2. For male swimmers, the swim suit shall not extend above the navel or below the knees."

-Taken from the USA Swimming Rules and Regulations website

One of the most basic levels of competitive swimming currently has more regulation than the most elite, a fact that FINA hopes to change with the new rules. While some hoped that the new rules would be implemented by January 1st, 2010, it's not likely. Now that manufacturers of swimsuits, companies like Speedo, TYR, and TruWest, have the new parameters to work with, they must be given time to develop new suits that follow the new regulations.

However for others, it still isn't soon enough. Michael Phelp's coach Bob Bowman has been quoted saying he won't enter Phelps in any more meets until the new rules are in place. Impatience for implementing the new rules is understandable, but perhaps Bowman's petulant attitude is not the role model for swimmers.

And what of Phelps, and all the other athletes that had the help of some polyurethane on their way to the record books? Will their names contain an asterisk as a form of apology for a lack of regulation, allowing the records to eventually become out of reach without the help of high-tech material? How much slower will the times be at the next World Championships? At the next Olympics?

You may want to remember that incredible relay Phelps and his team pulled off. It may be awhile before you see splits like that again. That being said, it will be refreshing to see a new generation of swimmers relying on their own talent and training to win. In the competitive world of swimming, it's become an arms race lately, with every new suit that comes out for the lowest drag, the most water-repellent, and the fastest times. From the fastskin to the LZR to the newest Arena-X Glide, it's going to be a bit of a shock to go back to the standard 'textiles' between the knee and waist/shoulder.

In local news, the University of California, Irvine has shut down their swimming program in response to budget cuts. The loss of that program will prove to be brutal as it is the only Division 1 swimming progam in Orange County. Alumni and the swimming community, including resident local team Aquazot Swim Club, are looking to sustain the program to buy time. Arizona State University faced a similar dilemma a few months back, and is so far sustaining the program seperately from the university.

With all these waves, its tough to forsee what will happen in the coming months for the swimming community. Hopefully, it's good news.