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When I first started swimming competitively, in junior high, we took pride in the sheer, tattered swimsuits we'd wear layered one atop another for extra drag in practice. It was, after all, the Flashdance era, when droopy layers had no small cachet. But come meet day, we'd do anything to be sleek—shave our legs and squeeze ourselves into too-tight Lycra suits, at the time still a newish technology. The goal was to minimize turbulence and to maximize forward momentum in the water. If the look intimidated a few competitors, so much the better.
That goal hasn't changed, though a new breed of racing suits—most notably Speedo's much-hyped LZR Racer—has taken sleekness to new limits. To make its latest high-tech, skinlike suit, Speedo enlisted NASA's wind tunnels, a water flume at New Zealand's Otago University, and the once-radical fashion design of Comme des Garçons Rei Kawakubo. Whatever Speedo's doing seems to be working: "When I hit the water [in the LZR Racer], I feel like a rocket," claims Michael Phelps, who's set two world records in LZR suits. Since its introduction in February, swimmers wearing the LZR Racer have claimed close to 50 world records.
Not surprisingly, cries of "technological doping" have erupted from swimming insiders. Athletes and teams sponsored by other swimwear companies have defected to Speedo for big races, for fear of whiffing on a world record or losing an Olympic slot due to brand loyalty, and the jilted companies have filed lawsuits. Despite the outcry, FINA, the governing body of international swimming, reviewed the supersuits and declared them legal for competition.
How could a swimsuit make such an impact on a swimmer's performance? To find out, I tried one out myself. The suits were designed for the most elite swimmers in the world, but I took a neck-to-ankle bodysuit version of the LZR Racer (retail value $550) for a couple of test drives, to see what it could do for a devoted, but by no means extraordinary, swimmer like me. I competed in high school and swam on masters teams for some 10 years after college. Since having babies, I haven't gotten back into serious training—Dara Torres I'm not—but I still swim pretty quickly. I tried the suit in the water twice—once on vacation in Italy, where I sprinted back and forth in our villa's pool, and once back home in Seattle, when I took it for a milelong swim in Lake Washington to test its qualities over time.
I was expecting the LZR Racer to be as hard to put on as the wetsuits I've worn for open-water racing—a pain-in-the-ass wriggle that makes you confront some of the more problematic parts of your body. But getting into the Speedo suit is much harder, like a lobster trying to molt backward. The LZR feels like paper, not cloth, and it is extraordinarily tight and stretchy. There is a second layer of core-compressing mesh that is particularly hard to get around the fleshier expanses of my hips and thighs. To get the super-flat zipper in the back closed, I tug the suit together while my husband pulls a Hattie MacDaniel and muscles the zipper closed.
Once vacuum-packed, I am quite a sight. The suit is darkly sheer in many places—all the more so because I am not nearly as lithe as an Olympic swimmer. (I doubt any of them are breast-feeding.) Rubbery expanses of matte black polyurethane keep my private bits concealed, but I can't help feeling like a dumpy Cher wannabe circa "If I Could Turn Back Time" (sans belly chain and aircraft carrier).
Even before I hit the pool, the first effect of the LZR is evident: It is one hell of a girdle. There is no jiggle to my walk, and previously droopy parts of my body are sucked up and in. Speedo is owned by Warnaco, which also makes underwear, and I cannot help but think that its lingerie divisions might be soon dipping into the body-tightening technology for their support garments. This firming up, of course, will make me more hydrodynamic since there are fewer obtrusive body parts to create turbulence in the water. It also has the effect of holding my body in a longer, leaner line as I swim. When I dive in, I feel propelled forward.