It was a little over four years ago, the day before Valentine's Day 2008, that swimming was revolutionised. Speedo made grand claims when it launched its new suit, the LZR Racer, that encased swimmers from head to toe in what resembled a seal skin. There were boasts of Nasa technology and a calculable improvement in performance.
It took a month for big words to become big deeds. By the end of February, 15 long-course world records were gone. By the end of 2008 the total was 108 – 79 of them went to those, like Rebecca Adlington and Michael Phelps, who were clothed in the LZR. Speedo and its swimmers had pressed the fast-forward button.
At the Beijing Olympics, swimmers shoe-horned into the LZR won 94 per cent of the gold medals; 23 of 25 world records went the same way. Other manufacturers followed suit, the X-Glide and the Jaked 01 added to the record rush and in 2009, times plummeted. As Ellen Gandy, a world silver medallist, wrote in a recent blog, if someone broke a record the reaction was "just like 'oh, yeah'".
In the first five days of the 2009 world championships in Rome, 29 new records were set. Germany's Britta Steffen said she felt like a "speed boat" after smashing the 100 metres freestyle mark. But there was growing disquiet among swimmers and officials as the boundaries were pushed further and further. Therese Alshammar had a record scrubbed for wearing two suits – air is trapped between them and so increases buoyancy. The LZR was designed with 50 per cent polyurethane – others had 100 per cent. The effect is to compress muscle and, basically, alter body shape.
"People were taking it to the nth degree and wearing two or three suits to try and get more of an advantage," says Scott Drawer, head of research and innovation at UK Sport, the body who oversee elite performance in this country.
Fina, swimming's governing body, banned the suits in 2010, when only two pre-2008 world records remained on the books. Since then time has stood still – just two new records have been set. But that does not mean those behind the scenes have stopped looking for ways to get their men and women in the pool to go faster.
At this year's Games the suits will be more recognisable as those worn at the local leisure centre. Manufacturers have to submit suits to Fina 12 months in advance of a Games and non-textile materials like polyurethane, which are in effect performance enhancing, are banned. Arena will launch its new suit, worn by Fran Halsall, tomorrow and Speedo has produced the Fastskin3, a suit, hat and goggles combination that the company says reduces underwater drag by 16 per cent.
Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach, helped to design the system. He said: "In a sport where gold medals are decided by hundredths of a second, that's a huge advantage." The suit's effectiveness will become clearer this month as the British trials, which started yesterday and run in London to 10 March, are followed by the Australian ones.
"Speedo has worked hard to improve its hat and goggle set up," says Drawer."Their evidence suggests it is better than just wearing a standard suit."
Drawer has gone down a different route in the search of those fractions of a second. A tow rig designed at the University of Southampton, which specialises in ships, is being used to help refine the technique of British swimmers. Sensors are attached to the athlete and the data produced shows where drag is highest.
"We try to understand why people went much faster in suits and try to find ways of getting that back," says Drawer. "When they swim you can calculate their drag – how much they are resistant to water – and through that information you can help refine techniques. It's an ongoing process. We've got the tool kit to help people understand the effect of technique on their drag. But it's not like you go in the pool one day and work it out, it's about testing and then repeating, lots of testing, lots of coaching, lots of practice."
At last year's world championships in Shanghai there were the first signs that the pause button had been released. Ryan Lochte broke the 200m individual medley world record and then Sun Yang did likewise in the 1500m free. Will London see a new assault on the record books?
"Eventually all those records will go," says Bill Furniss, Adlington's coach. "It will be more difficult in the power events because the suits helped there. But nothing stands still."
The London pool has features that assist quick times – it is uniformly 3m deep and it has extra lanes to absorb the wash and a flat trough on each side.
"We will have a better idea by the end of the week," said Michael Scott, the performance director of British swimming.
Five swimmers booked their places on Britain's Olympic team last night after the first day of competition at the Aquatics Centre.
Hannah Miley swam her fastest 400m individual medley in a textile suit and was joined on the squad by Aimee Willmott, whose father Stuart competed in the same event at the 1984 Olympics. Roberto Pavoni and Joe Roebuck filled the two slots in the men's equivalent and Robbie Renwick qualified in the 400m freestyle.
Miley recorded a time of 4min 32.67sec, which only she has bettered domestically. "I wasn't really expecting that time," she said. "I am really chuffed with how it went, it felt great. The crowd and the atmosphere was electric so it is going to be really exciting how it is going to be at the Olympic Games."
Willmott failed to make the team for the World Championships in Shanghai last year after being disqualified in the first trials in Manchester before her Psychology A Level clashed with the second stage in Sheffield. But she set a personal best of 4:37.48. Keri-Anne Payne was fifth, and the world open water champion will now be looking to qualify in the 800m freestyle.
In the men's equivalent Pavoni set a personal best of 4:12.43, 2.05sec ahead of Roebuck with both well within the qualifying time. Pavoni's success meant the first victory at the venue was by a local swimmer; he lives 20 minutes away in Brentwood, Essex. "It's unbelievable," he said. "I live just 20 minutes down the road. I might even stay at home for the Games."
Renwick also booked his spot in the 400m freestyle with 3:46.73 but David Carry's 3:48.36 was 0.23sec outside the time required and he will have to try again in Sheffield in June.
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