TAMPA - As Golda Marcus walked along the pool deck at the Brandon Sports and Aquatics Center, she could hear people whispering the same thing: "It's the LZR Racer. That's the new Speedo swimsuit."
Marcus, who will represent El Salvador in this summer's Beijing Games, had just received the new LZR Racer from Speedo. And not only was it turning heads, people also wanted to touch the swimsuit so controversial and revolutionary that some have called it "technological doping."
"I had little kids coming up to me wanting to feel the little panels that were on the side of the swimsuit," said Marcus, who also competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics. "It looks different; it feels different from anything that's come before it."
It is also performing differently - and radically so.
Since Speedo introduced the LZR Racer to the elite swimming world in February, 37 world records have been eclipsed by athletes wearing the suit Speedo has spent more than three years - and millions of dollars - designing and perfecting.
Clearly, there is substance behind the hype of the LZR. At this point before the 2004 Olympics, just five world records had been set.
"There's definitely something to the suit," said Brandon Blue Wave swim coach Peter Banks, who guided the careers of Olympic medalists Brooke Bennett and Maritza Correia. "Speedo has produced a suit that gives you an advantage. How far they go with that technology - or are allowed to go by FINA, the sport's governing body - remains to be seen. But it definitely helps performance."
The LZR swimsuit has not only led to world records, but also lawsuits and allegations. Some claim Speedo's science and engineering, as well as the way it has marketed the suit, have created an unfair advantage over other swimmers and swimsuit makers.
California-based TYR Sport recently went to federal court to allege Speedo has "conspired" with USA Swimming to stifle competition and lure top U.S. swimmers away from other companies. Italy coach Alberto Castagnetti, whose national team wears Arena swimsuits, has claimed anyone who wears the LZR is essentially cheating, calling the suit "technological doping."
So what has swimmers going so fast in the suit, and why are Speedo's rivals scrambling to come up with their own version of it before the Beijing Games?
Essentially, the LZR is one of the biggest technological leaps in swimsuit design since the introduction of polyester fabrics in the 1950s. It won't be available to the public until October, and when it arrives, the suit will cost $250 to $500, depending on the model.
A Fabric Revolution
Until now, swimsuits had been made by using traditional garment-making techniques, with gradual updates to the fabric and how it fits. The LZR, however, is the world's first fully bonded swimsuit, meaning all of its seams are ultrasonically welded together, without stitching and without overlap of the fabric. Even the zipper is bonded into the suit to minimize drag and to keep a lower profile in the water.
The LZR also features compression - something of a swimsuit girdle - to provide support and hold a swimmer's body core to achieve a more streamlined form in the water. And the LZR's fabric, created by one manufacturer in northern Italy, is the world's lightest woven material. It compresses, repels water, resists chlorine and overstretching and dries faster than any racing suit Speedo has made.
A closer look at the LZR also reveals several panels made from an extremely thin polyurethane membrane. The membrane is cut into panels by lasers and bonded into the suit.
"There were so many challenges in creating this suit," Speedo vice president Stu Issac said. "As opposed to using fabrics that already existed and using them in new ways, we had to create the fabric to our specs and find somebody who could do this incredibly fine fiber and weave it into one of the highest densities in stitch count per square inch of any fabric in the world."
Long before the suit went into production at a lone factory in Portugal, Speedo had to pull together a wealth of researchers, designers, athletes and coaches from around the globe. Even NASA's Langley Research Center got involved for surface drag testing of more than 60 types of fabric. There was water flume testing, fluid dynamics analysis and even three-dimensional body scanning of more than 400 elite athletes to learn more about the precise shape of bodies.
At each major step of the suit's development, FINA was asked for its approval, Issac said. Since the suit's introduction, FINA consistently has upheld the legality of its design. Nike, Arena and Diana are rushing to come up with an answer to the LZR and are expected to submit new suits for FINA approval at a June 3 meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. If they don't, some of their swimmers might be tempted to wear Speedo's suit at next month's U.S. Olympic trials.
"I would strongly advise them to wear the suit at the trials or they may end up at home watching the Olympics on NBC," U.S. Olympic swim coach Mark Schubert said.
Records Likely To Fall
Speedo says the LZR suit has 10 percent less drag than its Fastskin FSII suit and 5 percent less drag than the Speedo FS PRO. The records established in the LZR speak for themselves. And so do athletes who have tried the new suit.
"It's amazing," said the University of Georgia's J.P. Arnold, who is training in Brandon under Banks in preparation for next month's U.S. Olympic swim trials. "It's definitely considerably better than all the other suits, but I don't think it's unfair to use it. It's just the way the sport is progressing."
TYR, meanwhile, claims Speedo has violated antitrust laws by making deals with Schubert to promote the advantages of wearing the LZR suit at the trials and in the Beijing Games. Schubert said he wouldn't be surprised "to see every swimming world record broken at the Games."
Issac said there is going to be a team of Speedo staff at the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb., to make the LZR suit available to any swimmer who wants one - including those who have contracts with other companies. If those swimmers decide to wear the LZR, some are expected to black out the Speedo logo during the meet. That, Issac said, would be "disappointing," but he's not too concerned about it.
"If they did that, I don't think there'd be much confusion on the starting block as to what they're wearing," Issac said. "Our suit looks and performs like nothing else."
Reporter Bill Ward can be reached at (813) 259-7456