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Last modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bloomington Herald-Times Articles

'Science of Swimming' has shifted from technique to suits
By Mike Leonard
July 30, 2009

Since 1968, one of the best performance-enhancing supplements a swimmer could acquire was Doc Counsilman's game-changing book, "The Science of Swimming."

This week at the world swimming championships in Rome, it's become abundantly clear that high-tech, performance-enhancing swimsuits have turned the sport on its head, with world records falling in practically every event.

"Ironically, Counsilman was thinking, let's use science to enhance performance," says Joel Stager, director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University. "It's turned out like Einstein and the atomic bomb — Um. I never thought anyone would use my theories to blow things up!"

The problem is not the science of efficient swimming and training. It's the science that has gone into making swimsuits that provide less resistance and more buoyancy.

Stager is both a professor of exercise physiology and a competitive swimmer, and he confessed Wednesday to degenerating into fits of ranting and raving over the "carnival" and "joke" of the world championships. "I think many of us could foresee what was happening and what was going to happen, and now, here we are," Stager said. "The numbers are just bizarre. What, we've had 10 world records set in 13 events? It's at the point that coaches can't even interpret their training techniques. It's all about the suits."

Stager and other colleagues have tracked the development of full-body swimsuits and other suits, and until 2008, they didn't see the suits making a significant difference. "Then in 2008, we had 100 world records set and it was like, uh-oh, something changed."

The change was the advent of polyurethane woven into the suits. FINA, swimming's international governing body, has gone back and forth in deciding whether to allow or ban the suits, and the decision to allow them — for now — has not only made a mockery of previous records but created a potential financial crisis for college, high school and youth swimming programs.

The high-tech suits command high-tech prices, ranging from roughly $250 each to close to $600. "Coaches are having to call parents to say, "Well, if you want your kid to be competitive ..."

Swimmers might typically buy one suit to wear during a season and a new one to wear during championships. Stager estimated that the cost of outfitting all of the swimmers at the Indiana high school championships last year might have run as high as $20,000. With the new suits, he said, that cost will skyrocket to $100,000. "For one meet!" he said. "That's insane!"

If you expand the numbers, there are roughly 500,000 competitive swimmers in the U.S. "If all of those swimmers were compelled to get new suits to swim in their championships, you're talking about a $100 million windfall for the swimsuit manufacturers just in the space of February and March every year. By and large, the swimming community does not endorse these suits and didn't ask for them," Stager said. "But if the person in the other lane is wearing one, do you want to be the one who doesn't have one and knows that that other person has a big advantage?"

In some ways, the controversy is similar to the steroid scandal in baseball. "I think we're definitely going to have to put asterisks next to everything," Stager said. "We're in a huge mess here."

The master swimmer and kinesiologist said the problem might be even worse than is currently known. "Right now, all the focus is on the suits," he said. "When you bring up baseball, we don't even know what else is going on with performance enhancement, because everyone is looking at the suits."

Stager said FINA's current position to ban the suits beginning in 2010 is not satisfactory to him. He said the Counsilman Center has already sent out letters to the parents of its swim team that they've chosen to not compete in the high-tech suits.

"Actually, I'm betting that the NCAA will come out as early as next week and say we're done with this. And there'll be a big sigh of relief," he said. "Then the National High School Federation will follow suit.

"What happens with FINA is another matter," Stager said. "I don't know how they'll get out of the mess they're in."