Tech suits could be banned from youth swimming, and Park City coaches are ready for the change
June 3, 2018
Tech suits, the pricey woven compression suits intended to make swimmers more hydrodynamic, may be banned from youth competitions. Park City swimming coach Mike Werner says they won't be missed.
During a recent USA Swimming board meeting, the board endorsed a proposed ban on tech suits in competitions for swimmers aged 12 and under by ushering it into the next phase of approval – an appearance before the organization's house of delegates at its upcoming September board meeting.
Some swimmers may feel like they will miss out on the purported advantages the suits provide, Werner, who coaches the Miners high school swim teams and Park City Swimming's club teams, said the ban "needs to happen."
Werner said he is frustrated with the proliferation of the costly suits, especially among younger swimmers, where the advantages are negligible and create an unnecessary cultural stigma that the sport is only for the wealthy.
"You'll see these kids wearing them at developmental meets," Werner said. "The kids are in a $250 to $400 suit and they don't understand the stroke mechanics yet."
He said most of the time, the suits aren't sized correctly for the young swimmers, nullifying the thin advantage the suits purportedly provide.
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"The suits are based to fit around fully sized men and women," Werner said. "It has no context for hip size, bust size, and as soon as that thing has a wrinkle in it, it's toast; you've (negated) the compressional effect."
For those reasons and others, Werner said Park City Swimming's clubs don't wear tech suits unless it's a high-level meet between elite swimmers.
"I like to tell the kids 'Hey, get your suit and throw it in the water — until it swims by itself, you're going to have to learn the techniques,'" he said.
Shari Skabelund, assistant swim coach at Brigham Young University and head coach of the Utah Valley Rays swim club, feels similarly.
Like Werner, she says the suits provide only a marginal increase in performance, especially for young athletes, and the price for new suits can add up quickly.
Over the course of a single college men's and women's meet,where tech suits are a real advantage, she said BYU spends between $13,000 and $20,000 for suits, and Skabelund spends about 20 hours fitting the suits with athletes over the season when usually she would spend none.
While the progression in suits has been going on since the dawn of competitive swimming, the invention of synthetic materials like Spandex changed the game. Speedo was the first to use Spandex in a swimsuit when they adopted the material in 1970, and the history of the tech suit is inextricable from the company.
According to the company, 92 percent of medals at the Beijing Summer Games were won by athletes wearing its LZR Racer suit, tailored with its proprietary FASTSKIN material.
The next year the suit was banned by FINA, swimming's international governing body, doing away with full-body suits for men (shorts only now) and suits made of impermeable, hydrophobic material for both genders.
The tech suits used today by professionals and club swimmers are made out of a woven microfiber material, creating a higher-density threadcount and bond between the materials. The suits' seams are also bonded, like in a good raincoat.
"The material is just really, really light," Skabelund said. Which means the suits can be extremely difficult to get on, and are prone to ripping.
"You're just pulling and pulling and pulling," she said. "I enjoy coaching so much, but if I'm in a locker room trying to pull a suit up over a girl's behind, that's just not fun."
Skabelund said some years the suits aren't built well, and sometimes fail catastrophically. She recounted a competition in Florida where a swimmer's tech suit ripped in a revealing way. Skabelund ran to the side of the pool the swimmer was approaching and handed her a towel.
"Just faulty suits," she said. "It's embarrassing. You've worked that hard, you deserve to have everything go smoothly. That happens probably more than we realize."
At the youth level, Skabelund and Werner agree that the suits probably don't make a difference in a swimmer's times unless they are at the very apex of the competition. In Werner's perspective there is only one clear advantage the suits give young swimmers: the placebo effect.
"Some of the kids like it," he said. "It makes them feel like they're putting on a suit of armor and they're ready for battle."
Skabelund said for many families, the armor is too expensive for what should be an easy sport to join.
"Ours is a lifesaving sport — everyone needs to know how to swim," she said. "I'm not saying (kids) need to compete, but gosh, if they want to do it and they have the talent, they shouldn't be limited by funds."
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