Super swimsuits pressure local swimmers to spend more to compete

While training for the Junior Nationals in Seattle, Wash., Jack Deedrick, 17, left, and Blair Butler, 18, center, wear Speedo LZR suits while teammate Tyler Ball, 18, right, wears a basic Speedo during a workout, at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center. The LZR  suits will soon be banned by FINA (the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and open water swimming) because the rubberized material gives swimmers added buoyancy.   [ STEVEN OVERLY   | Times ]

STEVEN OVERLY | Times

While training for the Junior Nationals in Seattle, Wash., Jack Deedrick, 17, left, and Blair Butler, 18, center, wear Speedo LZR suits while teammate Tyler Ball, 18, right, wears a basic Speedo during a workout, at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center. The LZR suits will soon be banned by FINA (the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and open water swimming) because the rubberized material gives swimmers added buoyancy. [ STEVEN OVERLY | Times ]

James Taddeo surfaced after the 100-yard freestyle at the North Shore Pool last weekend with a personal best: 45.16 seconds.

But the St. Petersburg Aquatics swimmer said he can't take all the credit. The suit wrapped around his legs helped a bit, too.

In a sport where a hundredth of a second can separate first from second place, swimmers are slipping into controversial polyurethane bodysuits to shave time.

Swimmers donning full-body gear shattered world records daily at the recent FINA world championships in Rome, totaling 43. The suits give swimmers added buoyancy, prompting some in the international arena to claim they undermine athletic integrity.

On the local level, however, concern starts before athletes even dive in the pool. Some coaches and parents in the bay area say the cost prices out swimmers who can't afford to pay hundreds of dollars for a single suit.

FINA, the sport's governing body, will ban polyurethane beginning Jan. 1. Under new rules, suits must be made from ''textile fabric''. Men can cover only from navel to knee; women from shoulder to knee.

Those rules are expected to have a trickle-down effect, area coaches said. The United States will conform to international regulations and local outfits likely will follow.

"The kids have a bittersweet notion" about the ban, said Susan Curnutte, a Tampa Bay Aquatics coach from Crystal Beach. "They know it's an unfair extra to those who can't afford it, but it makes you so doggone fast."

But for parents like Taddeo's father, also named James, the ban will bring his wallet welcome relief. "It's out of control," he said. "How much more money are we going to have to spend to keep our swimmers in the sport?"

On Sunday, the younger James wore the rubberized fabric only from the waist down. But in another competition, brother Jonathan, 17, was wearing the full-body, 100 percent polyurethane update from Italy: a $700 model made by Jaked.

In some households, that's a mortgage payment. But the boys' father said it's the going rate of competition. "Do you want your kids to compete? If you want your children to be able to compete at that level, they have to have that suit," he said.

Jonathan will be senior at Countryside High in the fall and the elder Taddeo hopes the Jaked suit will lead to reduced college tuition payments. "It's going to save me money in the long run in the amount of money they are going to give him with a scholarship," he said. "So it's an investment in my son's future."

Curnutte has coached competitive swimmers for more than 20 years, adapting as more efficient training regimes emerge. But in recent years, the conversation has become as much about garb as pool time, she said.

"They'll wear a certain suit in the prelims and a better suit at finals," she said. "They talk constantly about what they're going to wear."

At the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center, that conversation plays out as six teens practice for the junior nationals. At the upcoming competition, every swimmer will be wearing a polyurethane suit, said coach Don LaMont.

Jack Deedrick, 17, stands among the swimmers. He admits polyurethane suits are an unfair edge for those who can afford them, but he plans to wear one at meets until the ban is in place.

"You don't want to put yourself at a disadvantage if you don't have to," he said.

But he looks forward to the ban.

"Everyone is going to be on even ground (then)," he said. "Your time will depend more on how you train rather than what suit you're in."

LaMont said adjusting to the new suit restrictions will be difficult for many swimmers. Times once within grasp will quickly fall out of reach.

"It will be a long time before those records are broken," LaMont said.

The next generation of swimmers will feel the effects, after watching Olympic legends like Michael Phelps slice through water in the full-body LZR Racer — which will no longer be allowed.

Curnutte said parents with children as young as elementary and middle school ages have approached her about buying the super suits.

She tells them to work harder.

"It would be nice to get back to the plain old, plain old," she said. "Get back to just swimming."

Steven Overly can be reached at soverly@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.

Super swimsuits pressure local swimmers to spend more to compete 08/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 7:51am]

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