Aaron Peirsol and the Latest Speed-Suits

When will swimming take a note from cycling and take the rules back in time when we all swam in nylon?

By Casey Barrett // Swimnetwork.com

Seven of the eight guys were in agreement. The full body supersuit – mostly the one made by Jaked in this race – was the fastest fabric to help them get from one wall and back in the 100 meter backstroke. The other guy decided it wasn’t for him. Last night, that guy dusted the rest on his way to a new world record…

The fact that Aaron Peirsol broke the world record in the 100 back was not the story. (He’s done it six times.) The fact that he won another national title was certainly not the story. (He’s done it Lord knows how many times.) The fact that he became the first man to dip under 52 seconds was a bit of a story, as all barriers are, but still not a Phelps-bumping front page headline. What he was wearing – or wasn’t wearing – was the story. In swimming, it was the fashion statement of the year.

To be clear – Peirsol did not set that record in a nylon training suit. That Arena fabric stretched over his legs surely provided a brilliant boost far more effective than mere skin on water. However, his decision – individual, fearless, and idiosyncratic, like the man himself – marked a departure from the bandwagon scramble to find the fastest suit of the moment.

Peirsol’s choice revealed something that perhaps has been lost in the madness surrounding the suit wars. And it goes to the very heart of fast swimming: this sport is mostly mental. Whatever you think is fast, IS fast.

As the scientists and the columnists and the coaches preach and worry about what material is most buoyant, about what crosses the lines of fair play, about what sacred records are being defiled by technology, it’s worth remembering that the swimmers out there are forced to make a choice not based on facts, but on feel. That is, not based on physical evidence, but on how their minds perceive what works best for them.

Needless to say, the great majority will go with the flow, pick the consensus choice, and assume it’s the best because the most are wearing it. Last year it was Speedo’s LZR, and based on the overwhelming majority of record-setters wearing it in 2008, it was hard to argue against it. This year, based on unscientific eyeballing of the finalists being introducing behind the blocks in Indianapolis, it appears the Jaked has taken over a major chunk of the LZR’s market share. But when a champion like Peirsol shatters a world record – and one set last week in a supersuit by a relative unknown – it should force every swimmer to sit up and starting thinking for him or herself.

The evidence that these suits enhance performance is beyond dispute. No serious arguments can be made on that front. Still, that fact can’t be confused with the assumption that these suits are magic bullets for best times. As the sage Yogi Berra once said: “90% of the game is half mental.” While you’re unraveling that one, take a look at the stories and the stars of these Nationals, and then look beyond the mixed messages of the fabric on their bodies to the mind games mastered by the very best.