AMES, Iowa -- Rick Sharp insists that it's the swimmer, and not necessarily the suit, that will ultimately produce a gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Aug. 8-24.
That's essentially the same position the Iowa State University kinesiology professor took in a pair of research papers that prompted Jason Rance -- chief of Speedo's Aqualab global R&D center in England -- to call him back in 2004. Rance asked Sharp to join a team of outside experts to help Speedo build a better swimsuit.
The "better suit" has become Speedo's LZR Racer®. It has already been worn by swimmers setting 48 world records since its February release, according to last week's Sports Illustrated cover story on U.S. swimming star Michael Phelps -- the suit's most celebrated user. In that same article, Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said the suit is helping swimmers drop a remarkable 2 percent off their best times.
The LZR Racer's impact has been so profound that it's now been profiled by numerous national media outlets. It's even been included in a display of costumes worn by comic book heroes in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But Sharp still contends it's not the suit that will make swimmers truly super in Beijing.
"The suit has a lot of outstanding technical qualities, but it doesn't know how to swim," said Sharp, who also is director of ISU's kinesiology laboratories. "It's that interaction between talent and technology that makes it really special, I think. It's not going to take someone who's not already an elite world class swimmer and put them at that level. It can't do that. But it can help that elite athlete optimize that last little bit of performance they need to compete favorably, set a record, win a race -- unless, of course, the person in the next lane is also wearing the suit, which is going to happen (at the Olympics)."
The world's best swimmers will wear the suit
The buzz over the suit has been so loud that most of the world's best will be wearing it in Beijing. Sharp says that in addition to the U.S. team, the LZR Racer® will also be worn by swimmers from Australia, Canada, England, the Netherlands and Japan, among others. The Japanese swimmers and coaches even petitioned their government to set aside an existing contract calling for Japanese manufacturers to provide their Olympic gear.
But who can blame them, given the pool record of Speedo's snug bodysuit.
"This many world records can't be argued with," said Sharp. "The suit is definitely having an impact."
You won't get any argument from 41-year-old Dara Torres, who will be the oldest woman to ever compete in Olympic swimming this year -- her fifth Olympic Games. Torres initially resisted wearing the LZR Racer® because her past success came in smaller suits. But after seeing how it cut her time, she became a believer. She's now dropped 1.34 seconds off her 50-meter freestyle time from the 1988 Olympics.
"She's somebody who's been in the sport for a long, long time," said Sharp, who spoke with Torres in Speedo's February New York news conference. "She's seen all the developments come and go. And at the time that she was just starting in the sport, the trend was less, less, less in terms of coverage and fabric. And she now comes back into the sport later in life and comes to the realization that maybe that's not the best way to go and that maybe we can do better with more fabric -- if it's the right fabric and put together in the right design. That's kind of a cool perspective to have that she's gotten to experience that first hand."
LZR Racer draws some competitive fire
The suit's design has been so good that it's drawn the ire of the competition, and even a lawsuit. But that's just fine by Sharp.
"I think it's pretty gratifying to work with a company that put so many resources behind development of an effective product and works so closely with athletes and coaches around the world. It's nice that the product then performs as well in competition as it did during all our hours of testing over the last few years," he said. "It's only natural that there's going to be some of that kind of concern that somebody has an unfair advantage, which is why Speedo ensures the suit is available to all who want it, in line with FINA guidelines. So I think Speedo would probably be happy because they're (its rivals are) doing the marketing for them.
"But I don't think it's the only suit you're going to see in the Olympics that has this design because the other companies are scrambling to get something out there and available that will compete favorably with this suit for their athletes that they sponsor," he added. "It's a tough challenge, however, as the team has spent over three years and worked with bodies like NASA and the AIS to get it to where it is today. That's literally 1000's of hours of R&D."
Just like the rest of the world, Sharp plans to watch the Beijing Olympic telecasts closely to see how the suit performs at the highest level of competition.
And after it's over, he's already started on his next project -- London 2012.