Move over ‘super shoes’ – now it is all about swimming’s ‘super suit’

Speedo Fastskin suit
Two-thirds of the gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics were won by swimmers in Fastskin suits

When the Olympic medals are distributed to the world’s greatest swimmers at Paris’s La Défense Arena this summer, an all-female team of British-based scientists will be taking more than a passing interest.

Where athletics now has its “super shoes”, swimming has its latest “super suits” and a brand new design – complete with a fabric coating that was inspired by space exploration – will be used at a World Aquatics Championships for the first time next month.

British swimmers are among those who have secured use of the Speedo Fastskin suits, which retail from £235 to £460 and, in their previous “polyurethane” incarnation, were worn by 94 per cent of gold medal-winners at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

That material was ultimately outlawed, but the technological advancements continue apace at Speedo’s UK-based Aqualab and, applying the same hydrodynamic principles, almost two-thirds of gold medals in Tokyo were won in Fastskin suits. That included perhaps the three biggest stars – Adam Peaty, Caeleb Dressel and Emma McKeon – while more than half of all world records since 2019 have been set in the suits.

Adam Peaty of Team Great Britain reacts after winning the gold medal in the Men's 100m Breaststroke Final on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Adam Peaty won back-to-back Olympic 100m breastroke golds in his Speedo jammers - Fred Lee/Getty Images

The science has progressed further with the arrival of the LZR Pure Intent 2.0 and LZR Pure Valor 2.0 versions, which have added a water-repellent outer layer.

These coatings, manufactured by Dutch company Lamoral, which specialises in materials that protect satellites against the harshest space conditions, have been designed to ensure that the pool water cannot penetrate the suit. That should add to a feeling of weightlessness and buoyancy.

The swimming world now awaits the first global results in Doha, where the World Championships will be staged from February 2.

The head of innovation at Aqualab is Coora Lavezzo, a graduate in physics and civil engineering from the University of Birmingham, with no prior background in swimming. Her eight-strong team of women are based variously in London, the Speedo offices in Nottingham and a material-testing facility at the Berghaus base in Sunderland, which is owned by Speedo’s parent company, Pentland.

The experts behind creating the suits range from anatomists, designers and pattern engineers to material scientists, civil engineers, former swimmers and current Olympic champions.

“So much of what we look at is to do with hydrodynamics,” says Lavezzo. “We study drag and how it can be overcome. We also look at buoyancy in the water. Swimmers often talk about the feeling of riding high in the water.”

Speedo's women's Fastskin for 2024
The suits aid buoyancy

The innovation process combines the results of numerous scientific trials, often with mannequins, in facilities across the UK and the United States, before then producing a prototype on which the world’s best swimmers provide feedback.

“Sometimes it’s really down to how the swimmer feels as much as what the data is saying. If they feel really good through the water, they are going to perform really well,” says Lavezzo.

Matt Richards, Great Britain’s Olympic and double world freestyle champion, was among those who trialled suits on the journey to the finished product.

The biggest change relates to what is called the hydrophobicity of the suits, with Lamoral and Speedo settling on a preferred new outer coating following trials of more than 50 chemical recipes.

The emergence of an all-female design team was never planned but there have been unexpected potential benefits. Lavezzo says: “Our female athletes are able to have conversations that perhaps haven’t been had in the past… about how the suit fits and feels on the body and some of the challenges that female athletes face, which is amazing.

“It [engineering] can be a very male-dominated industry. We are very privileged to have a team of great thinkers…who bring together creativity as well as science and engineering. They have a great ability to question everything, which is what we need in an innovation space.”

One big difference since world swimming’s governing body brought in new rules in 2010 is that the full-body suits are now only worn by women, whereas the men wear the waist-down knee length “jammers”.

Lavezzo highlights gender differences in the centre of buoyancy and says that it would be “interesting to look at those rules around men’s [body] coverage”, arguing that the space for innovation remains vast, particularly in the potential use of “on-board tracking” or products that can be personalised to specific athletes or conditions.

So what do the swimmers think? Australian McKeon, the five-time Olympic champion, highlights how the suit “glides” and it feels like the water is not sticking to the suit. Richards, an Olympic champion in Tokyo and a double world champion last year, emphasises its durability, and thus its benefit to emerging swimmers.

“Your average person doing their 50 lengths, they wouldn’t need it, but if they put one of these suits on, they would be blown away by how it feels,” he told TWS.

“They will definitely be quicker than they have been before and more comfortable. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see the number who adopt these. I think that a large portion of the medals won and the podiums will be made up of the new Speedo suits.”

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