Swimwear companies have invested millions designing high-performance suits for the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Can design help swimmers finish faster? Following the 2004 Athens Olympics, officials at swimwear giant Speedo had good reason to celebrate: Athletes clad in their latest suits at the time, called Fastskin FSII, won 46 medals in the pool. Yet when the company’s in-house design team, Aqualab, gathered soon after the games at company headquarters in Nottingham, Britain, they were already focused on how to innovate the next generation. “We looked at all the suits and the competition and what was good and bad,” recalls Jason Rance, worldwide head of Aqualab. Four years later, after a multimillion-dollar research and development effort, Speedo in February unveiled the LZR (pronounced laser) Racer, made from a featherweight fabric and equipped with compressor panels that hug a swimmer’s body.
Staying ahead of the pack in high-performance swimwear is crucial for companies like Speedo, owned by the Pentland Group and licensed in the U.S. by apparel company Warnaco (WRNC). While the global swimsuit market targeted to elite athletes is worth an estimated $15 million annually, there’s a much broader “training” market figured at $500 million globally and made up of amateur, collegiate, club, and recreational swimmers. They seek to emulate swimming world stars by buying the same expensive gear. The overall U.S. swimwear market is $4.3 billion wholesale, according to market researcher the NPD Group. If you want the LZR, get ready to pay between $290 and $550 per suit when it becomes available to the general public in late June.
Making Up for a Big Behind
A look at how Speedo’s Aqualab team—which includes garment engineers, materials experts, and product developers—created LZR reflects not only how swimsuit design has advanced along with technology but also the cutthroat competition that propels companies to innovate continually. Aqualab started with dozens of hypotheses about how to make a faster suit, including one idea to replicate colors on the body and arms of the suit, to improve hand-eye coordination. This was dropped because swimmers don’t see their arms that much in the water. Designers decided to focus on reducing skin friction or hydrodynamic drag—water passing over the body as it moves through the pool. A second area was form-drag: the bumps and curves and muscle oscillations on a swimmer’s own body that also hinder progress in the water.
That second factor is critical, Rance explains, because “If you have a big chest or a big behind sticking out, you are less hydrodynamic. It’s like diving in the water in a big woolly jumper.” To reduce hydrodynamic drag, Aqualab began testing some 60 fabrics, with the help of a NASA wind tunnel, before coming up with a model made of extremely fine yarn that is densely woven together. This was slathered with nanomolecular plasma and on top of that, a Teflon-like coating, to make the surface as smooth as possible as well as water-repellent and fast-drying. At the same time, Speedo conducted 3D body scans on 400 elite swimmers to understand shapes and sizing to help pattern makers create a suit.
Passing the Water Park Test
Meanwhile, designers addressed the question of form-drag, or how to streamline or change the shape of a swimmer’s body. The solution, similar to a tactic used by many performance-enhancing apparel makers, was compression. In this case, designers inserted panels made of laminated polyurethane within the bodysuit at specific points—such as the chest and buttocks—to smooth the body’s silhouette like a corset. “This allows a swimmer to hold their body position when they get fatigued over distance,” Rance says. To fine-tune the suit, designers decided to bond, rather than sew, the seams using ultrasonic welding to melt the fabric together, further reducing drag, Speedo says. Tests were also conducted on a high-speed flume at New Zealand’s University of Otago. Over the years, racing swimsuits have gone through considerable changes, from wool to nylon and then to tighter, lower-slung models aimed at reducing drag. Speedo’s Fastskin, introduced in 2000, replicated a shark’s skin.
Several manufacturers are chasing one another to introduce engineered pool gear for the Beijing games. Arena’s new suit is called the R-Evolution, while Adidas unveiled the TechFit Powerweb, as well as a suit designed specifically for breaststroke swimmers. Meanwhile, Huntington Beach (Calif.)-based TYR, a unit of Swimwear Anywhere, launched the Tracer Light and Tracer Rise as their Olympic hopefuls. At TYR, the development of new suits centered on creating a lighter-weight fabric that doesn’t leak or take on water, using a woven rather than a knitted fabric, after TYR’s researchers found that knitted fabrics drop moisture between fibers.
A polyurethane coating was added to create a smoother surface, and compression panels reduce muscle undulation. One difference with Speedo’s LZR is that TYR’s new model—which will retail for between $80 and $350—has stayed with stitched seams. The advantage of stitching, argues Jeremy Tongish, TYR’s merchandising director, is that it holds the fabric around the compression panels more effectively, which means a firmer grip on the muscles and therefore greater energy return. “If [athletes] squeeze themselves into a tighter suit with bonded seams, it exerts a lot of force on the fabric,” he says, implying that sewn suits will be longer-lasting and tighter-fitting.
Fastest Suit in the Pool
So far, both types of design ingenuity appear to be paying off. Dozens of records already have been broken by swimmers wearing the new Speedo and TYR suits in competition, leading to some complaints that such models give wearers an unfair advantage or do not comply with guidelines set by FINA, the swimming world governing body, which has already approved both suits. However, at a meeting held over the weekend at the World Championships in Manchester, Britain, to consider the criticisms, FINA confirmed, “All swimsuits approved so far are complying with specifications.” Still, Speedo’s Rance maintains it takes more than a suit to win a race. “LZR is the fastest suit out there, and the suit helps,” he claims. But, he adds, “it is the cumulative effect of the suit and the swimmer” that wins the race, not merely the suit itself.
Born on Bondi Beach near Sydney, Australia in 1928, Speedo® is the world’s top-selling swimwear brand. The brand’s heritage derives from its leadership in competitive swimming, where more Olympic Gold Medals have been won in Speedo than any other brand. World Champion Michael Phelps is among the elite athletes wearing Speedo; Phelps wore Speedo as he made history in Beijing, winning eight gold medals and rewriting the record books. Phelps’ belief in Speedo’s history of innovation and the Speedo Aqualab is shared by fellow Team Speedo stars Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte and Katie Hoff. Building on its authentic base, the Speedo product line has expanded over the years. Now sold in more than 170 countries around the world, Speedo’s product line includes women’s fashion and fitness swimwear, men’s water shorts, kid’s swimwear, footwear, and a comprehensive collection of aquatic fitness equipment. For more information, visit www.speedousa.com.
Born on Bondi Beach near Sydney, Australia in 1928, Speedo is the world’s top-selling swimwear brand. The brand’s history of innovation began that year, as Speedo introduced the Racerback suit – the world’s first non-wool suit allowing greater freedom of motion. Soon after, Swedish swimmer Arne Borg set a world record in Speedo swimwear, establishing the brand in the hearts and minds of swimmers and the general public. From the first racerback in the 1920’s, Speedo has been behind many of the major innovations in swimwear. In the 1950’s the brand created its first watershort and launched it’s first-ever suit made of Nylon. In the 1970’s, Speedo became the first company to produce swimwear made of Nylon / Elastane. Speedo introduced Endurance, the world’s first chlorine resistant fabric, in 1994.
In 2000, Speedo launched the revolutionary Fastskin® swimsuit inspired by shark’s skin. In 2008, Speedo launched the LZR Racer®, in which the world’s best swimmers – led by Michael Phelps – rewrote the record books. Today, Speedo’s new LZR Racer Elite line of suits is being worn by Phelps and fellow Team Speedo stars Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte and Katie Hoff. Speedo’s rich Olympic history dates back to 1932 when Claire Dennis of Australia won gold in Speedo at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. In 1956 at the Melbourne Olympic Games, Speedo sponsored the entire Australian swim team, transforming Speedo into a world famous brand.
In Mexico at the 1968 Games, 27 of 29 gold medalists wore Speedo. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, 21 out of 22 world records were set by athletes wearing Speedo. In Barcelona in 1992, 53% of all swimming medals at the Games were won by athletes wearing Speedo; that number was surpassed in 1996 as 77% of all swimming medals were won by swimmers in Speedo at the Atlanta Olympics. In 2004, Michael Phelps made history by becoming the first ever swimmer to win eight medals at the Olympics, including six gold and two bronze, all while wearing Speedo. Then, in 2008, Phelps, in the greatest swimming performance of all-time, made history again as he won an unprecedented eight gold medals in Beijing.
In 1932, Swede Arne Borg became the first swimmer to earn an Olympic Gold Medal in a Speedo suit. Today, more than 80 years later, more Olympic Gold Medals have been won in Speedo than any other brand. Supporting the sport of swimming and its athletes, coaches and teams has always been paramount to Speedo. The brand was the first to sign a swimmer to an endorsement contract – Olympic gold medalist Donna de Varona, in the 1960’s. Since then, the top names in swimming have competed in Speedo, including John Naber, Janet Evans, Summer Sanders, Lenny Krayzelburg, Jenny Thompson and many more. The current decade of swimming has been dominated by Michael Phelps. A Team Speedo star since 2001, Phelps’ relationship with Speedo goes beyond a traditional endorsement contract. Phelps used the $1 million bonus he earned from Speedo for his record medal haul in Beijing to start the Michael Phelps Foundation, a charitable organization committed to growing the sport of swimming. Today, the top swimmers in the U.S. – and the world – join Phelps as part of Team Speedo, including Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte and Katie Hoff.
Speedo uses the most advanced materials and designs to allow everyone – from Olympic Gold Medalists to children learning to swim – to reach their goals with speed.
V. Product Features
Everything Speedo creates is an expression of form dictated by function. Every detail, every line, every color has a purpose. Among the most recent developments are: * The Speedo LZR Racer® Elite line of speedsuits, featuring Speedo’s lightweight and powerful LZR Pulse fabric, unique 3D pattern and fully bonded seams * Speedo Endurance+, the 100% chlorine resistant fabric that lasts 20-times longer than spandex fabric and fits the body like a glove with its Four-Way Stretch fabric technology * Speedo Biofuse® goggles, engineered to perform in harmony with the human body through the bonding of structure and flexibility * The Air Seal XR goggle, the most comfortable high-performance goggle ever made
* Born from the LZR Racer technology, the new Speedo Core Stabilizer, featured in select suits in the women’s 2010 line, features fabric that provides optimum shape and core stability * The new Speedo Hydro Bra, featured in many of Speedo’s new 2010 women’s suits, provides an athletic fit with added support for long-lasting comfort * Speedry®, featured in the brand’s line of watershorts and boardshorts, water repellent fabric that dries twice as fast * HydroTread®, a new lightweight rubber compound featured in Speedo’s footwear line that provides the ultimate pool deck traction V. Distribution
In North America, Speedo is sold in more than 11,000 stores encompassing all distribution channels. It also operates an ecommerce site,www.speedousa.com. As the most distributed swimwear brand in the world, Speedo is able to serve different customer needs in different selling environments.
Speedo’s future innovation is developed in the Aqualab, the brand’s top secret development facility. Aided by the world’s champion athletes and coaches, Speedo’s multi-national team of researchers conducts revolutionary projects that aim to solve the challenges of the body in motion. The Fastskin family of elite speedsuits was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute for advanced technology. The experts in the Speedo Aqualab worked with NASA to develop the Speedo LZR Racer, which debuted in 2008. The Speedo LZR Racer was named as one of the best inventions of the year in 2008 by TIME Magazine and one of the most innovative products of the year in 208 by Popular Science Magazine. The LZR Racer also took home an Edison Award in 2008 for its design and innovation.
Speedo is among the most recognized brands on the planet, largely because of its innovative products and extensive marketing efforts. Speedo is a proud sponsor of the world’s best Olympic athletes in swimming, including Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte and Katie Hoff. Speedo is also the official outfitter for USA Swimming through 2012. The brand’s marketing efforts extend into the fashion world, with national print and digital campaigns shot by world famous photographers such as Michael Thompson and Michael Muller.