There's nothing quite like the Olympics to make me feel guilty about my slothful lifestyle. Most weekends I while away the hours on my couch, watching movies, reading magazines, and musing idly about going to the gym. My routine is pretty much the same when the Olympics are on, only it feels more shameful. Everywhere I look, I see pictures of toned athletes straining and sweating, and anytime I turn on the television, there's an inspirational montage telling me that Olympians aren't so different from you and me. They're just more motivated.
This year, to cut down on Olympics-induced self-pity, I decided to take up swimming. More precisely, I decided that at some point in the future I would take up swimming. First I'd need a good pair of goggles—the item, I've always thought, that divides the lappers from the splashers (and that would prevent me from using the lame "I'd swim for exercise, if only my darned eyes weren't so sensitive to chlorine" excuse). Not content to settle for any old pair, I pledged to find the best goggles out there.
To get a sense of the marketplace, I started by calling up two-time Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Mintenko, who's now the managing director for the U.S. swim team. I asked her how I should go about testing prospective models and which brand she preferred. She advised that in addition to swimming laps, I should practice diving to make sure the goggles fit snuggly. She also told me she was partial to Swedish goggles: Manufactured by the swim gear and pool equipment company Malmsten, these have no seal of any kind around the eyecups and require assembly, allowing for maximal customization.
The Swedes sounded like they had a good product, but I wasn't sure I was ready for an assembly-required model, so I decided to try out several other styles as well. I ordered six pairs, persuaded two friends to join me at a public pool one hot Saturday afternoon, and jotted down our first impressions. That was Stage 1. Stage 2 involved a more rigorous Sunday alone at the same pool, swimming laps, attempting underwater flips, and jumping in and out of the water (more cannonball than dive, but I don't believe this sacrificed the rigor of the fit test). I gave each pair a solid 45 minutes of individual attention. For the third and final stage, I strapped on a different pair of goggles each day after coming home from work. Then I cleaned my room, cooked dinner, or performed some other ordinary task. As my roommate can attest, I looked ridiculous, but this was a quick way to determine if a pair produced the dreaded raccoon-eye effect.
Each pair of goggles could score a possible 35 points, with either 5 or 10 points assigned for the following categories:
Ease of Use(5 possible points)
Manufacturers recommend that swimmers adjust goggles before entering the pool. This should be simple to do. Ideally, you should able to tweak the head strap quickly when you're already in the water as well.
Comfort (10 possible points)
Is the suction so strong you get a headache? Is the nosepiece so rough you chafe between the eyes? And once you're back on dry land, do you have dramatic, circular marks around your eyes?
Visibility (10 possible points)
A goggle's telos is to keep water out of your eyes. Any pair that can't do that has no business being strapped to your face. I subtracted major points for leakage and for fog.
Aesthetics (5 possible points)
Unlike their landlubber cousin, sunglasses, goggles aren't fashion accessories. But if I have to wear them in public, I'd prefer not to encourage mockery. From plastic masks that look more like laboratory safety gear to sleek, strapless goggles that adhere to your eye sockets, the pairs I tried varied in size and attractiveness. I subtracted style points for cheap-looking, flimsy plastic straps, and I added points for flair, like mirrored lenses that keep out sunlight and create an aura of aquatic mystery.
Value (5 possible points)
If you leave your goggles behind at the pool, you should be able to afford a replacement without having to sell your Dara Torres autograph on eBay. That said, it's worth shelling out a few extra bucks for a really great pair. So I used a pretty standard consumer equation: my personal sense of satisfaction divided by price.
The results, listed from kiddie pool to Olympic class:
Barracuda Standard Goggle, $29.95 Barracuda frames are designed to match the contours of your eye sockets so that suction isn't necessary. This was the most comfortable pair I tried—no headaches from excess suction, no chafing from hard plastic (Barracudas have spongy foam pads around the eyepieces), and no raccoon eyes after my dry-land test. They're also rather classy—their circular rather than slanted lenses give them a Yellow Submarine-era John Lennon vibe.
Alas, they fell short in every other category. Adjusting the head strap is easy enough—just pull a rubber cord through plastic clips—but the nose bridge was a nightmare. If there's a gap between the foam cups and your nose, you need to remove the bridge with a tiny hex key (which comes with the goggles) and then trim it with a scissor. At first I didn't realize there was a gap, so I jumped into the pool and immediately suffered leakage. Seeing as I regularly misplace far more vital objects, like my wallet, I wasn't surprised to find that I'd left the hex key on my desk. So I had to postpone my tests. I returned the next morning having trimmed the bridge, but by the end of my 45-minute trial, I noticed leakage yet again. It's possible I needed to trim the nosepiece even more, but I suspect that water was seeping in between the eyecups and the foam (they're held together with glue). Either way, 30 bucks is way too steep given the labor required to make these goggles work.
Ease of Use: 1
Finis Jet Stream Goggle, $24.99 These mask-style goggles, which hug your cheekbones on the bottom and fit over your eyebrows, are intended for recreational swimmers, since their large size causes drag. I wasn't out to break any world records, so this prospect didn't bother me. I was bothered, however, by the fact that my two friends thought I looked like I was getting ready to titrate some HCl instead of jump in the pool. These are some very goofy-looking goggles. I also developed a headache within the first 10 minutes. The Finis Jet Streams rely on suction so strong I felt like my eyes were popping out.
Another problem: During my Saturday quick trial, I didn't detect any visibility problems, but on Sunday after some underwater flips, the goggles fogged up a tad. The only real point in favor of the Jet Streams is that they're extremely easy to adjust. No screws or scissors here, no nosepiece in need of trimming—just a head strap with a simple clasp that you can tighten or loosen with one hand.
Ease of Use: 5
Nike Swift Strapless Goggle, $25 (plus additional adhesive pads) If you're after a futuristic "I'm not from around here" look, you might like these goggles, which have no head strap or nose bridge. Then how do they stay on, you ask? Why, they stick to your eye sockets with double-sided medical adhesive, of course! The Nikes get points for aesthetics—and for visibility: I experienced no leakage or fog. While I was in the pool, they were pretty cozy, and I liked the fact that I could wear them without a swim cap, since there's no strap to get knotted in my hair.
The problem with these goggles is that they're a little frightening to take off. When I ordered my pair from Swim-Shop.com, I got a rather foreboding e-mail: "None of us here have ever used them, so we are not able to tell you personally whether or not they hurt to remove." As it turned out, the removal process didn't hurt much. And it's no big deal that I lost a couple of eyebrow hairs—I suppose I saved myself a trip to the esthetician. Afterward, however, I had a pretty dramatic red rim around my eyes, and my skin became a little irritated. And while $25 isn't all that much for a pair of goggles, they come with only 20 single-use adhesive pads. After that, you have to start ordering packs of 25, which, at $20 a pop, really adds up.
Ease of Use: 4
Swedish Goggles, $5.00 When these goggles, which came so highly recommended by Lindsay Mintenko, arrived in the mail, I felt daunted. I received a little plastic bag with two hard-plastic eyecups, a latex cord, a small plastic tube, a bit of string, and no instructions. Confused, I looked online for guidance and happened upon a wikiHow page outlining a five-step assembly process. The existence of this page speaks to the fact that Swedish goggles aren't especially user-friendly.
After about 10 minutes of wiki-assisted fiddling, I had the goggles in one piece and strapped them on. I was worried that I'd have the Barracuda experience all over again, since the Swedish goggles employ no suction of any kind (or foam, for that matter). But I was pleasantly surprised to find that these goggles worked as advertised. The little plastic cups were so perfectly fitted to the contours of my face that I experienced no leakage or fogging. After a while, though, the hard plastic felt rough against the corners of my eyes. Also, aestheticswise, this pair is tough to put a number on—some people may like their extreme simplicity; others may think they look as cheap as they are.
Ease of Use: 2
Tyr Nest Pro Goggle, $20.00 Designed specifically for the 2008 Olympics, these goggles have a gridlike pattern around the eyepieces meant to evoke the bird's-nest architectural design of the main Beijing stadium. This detail makes for a great conversation piece and deserves a few aesthetic points, although the material looks and feels cheap.
These were the most "yeah, but …" pair I tried. Yeah, they keep out water and fog, but the suction is a little strong, causing mild discomfort. There's no assembly required, but once in the pool the strap has a tendency to get stuck in the clip, making on-head adjustment a bit tough. They're not expensive, like the Nike Strapless goggles, but they're hardly a steal. All in all, a good basic pair that should do the trick for recreational swimmers.
Ease of Use: 4
Speedo Speed Socket, $24.99 This pair is roughly like the Swedish goggles in that the eyecups are exceptionally well-designed to match the bone structure of the socket and it's possible to custom-fit the nosepiece. But they're better for nonprofessional swimmers, because the soft eyepieces rest more comfortably against the skin than the hard-plastic Swedes, and because they're much easier to customize. Speedo sends along three ready-made nosepieces, each slightly different in size, and it couldn't be easier to clip them on and off.
My friends and I agreed that the Speed Sockets look sleek and professional. And for just $5 more you can get a pair with mirrored lenses, which keep out sunlight and give your face a certain T-1000, liquid metal je ne sais quoi. Because the suction isn't too aggressive, I didn't experience any pain, and the raccoon effect was minimal. These goggles deserve high marks in every category. In fact, I liked them so much that maybe—maybe—I'll dispense with televised sports this August and hit the pool for some laps.
Ease of Use: 5