In 2009, Speedo’s research team began to brainstorm innovative ways to help swimmers go faster. The polyurethane bodysuits that contributed to an astonishing number of swimming world records over the previous 18 months had been banned. To think outside the box, the Speedo representatives met outside the lab, joining academics, coaches and research consultants at hotels, conference centers and even an English country house to spawn ideas, ideas inspired more by Captain Avenger than Mark Spitz.
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“Lots of conversation was had around wild and wacky ideas,” says Joe Santry, the research manager for Speedo’s Aqualab in Nottingham, England. “Some of the initial sketch concepts brought to the table looked like a superhero suit with a sleek cap, goggle, and suit combination that wouldn’t look out of place in a Marvel comic.”
They were trying to replace the now infamous full-body LZR suit. Dubbed “the rubber suit,” it compressed a swimmer’s body into a streamlined tube and trapped air, adding buoyancy and reducing drag. Speedo says 98 percent of the medals at the 2008 Olympics were won by swimmers wearing the LZR. Michael Phelps set world marks in seven of his eight events at Beijing wearing the suit, but applauded its ban.
The new rules, in effect since 2010, permit only “jammers,” suits from the kneecap to navel for men, and from the knee to shoulder for women. The fabric must be air permeable, and a suit may not have any fastening devices such as a zipper, a response to companies that began creating wetsuit-like neoprene suits after the 2008 Olympics.
Ultimately, Speedo decided to rebuild not only the suit, but create a “racing system” that it claims combines the suit and the goggles and cap working in synergy to reduce drag and improve performance.
At Aqualab, researchers took four years and spent 55,000 man-hours to produce what Speedo calls the Fastskin 3 system. The internal team of 19 supplemented by outside experts talked to hydrodynamic experts, aircraft engineers and nano textile producers. They called on experts in kinesiology, biomechanics, fluid dynamics and even a sports psychologist, who suggested a blue-gray tinge on goggle lenses to instill a sense of calm and focus. They tried the “Six Thinking Hats” method of brainstorming, a green hat for creative ways to attack a problem, a black one to look at the feasibility of those ideas. They “reverse brainstormed,” picturing how to make a swimmer go as slow as possible with oversized goggles and a suit compressing the body so parts stuck out, creating drag. The crazier the idea, the better.
“It opens up your mind,” Santry says. “We all have a strict path of how we get used to thinking. We used those techniques to pull out interesting facts and work around ideas.”
They scanned athletes in 3-D, creating avatars so computational fluid dynamics software could uncover where turbulence and drag were being created, similar to racing car teams that use aerodynamic modeling. “We found the head and goggles created huge amounts of turbulence at the top of the body, and this slowed down the swimmer and decreased the effect of the suit,” Santry says. “So much like a Formula 1 car, which has this wing that allows you to set up airflow, we realized we needed something like that for a swimmer.”
That began the most revolutionary aspects of the system: redesigning the goggles and cap. They scanned the heads of athletes from around the world and merged the results in a software program to generate an average head shape, one that fits 95 percent of people. Santry, who has developed helmets for cyclists, noted that time trial racers use an aerodynamic teardrop shape. They designed a swimmer’s cap that does something similar, building a place for a woman’s hair that creates a tail on the back of the head.
“From research done in Beijing we knew goggles and caps caused a lot of drag, but this time round we had the internal expertise and time to produce a research-driven goggle from scratch,” Santry adds. “This allowed us to really get playing in that area and take the crazy superhero-type sketches to reality.”