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Rough Water

A new generation of high-tech swimsuits burst into public consciousness during last summer’s Olympics. But a year later, those suits—and one Orange County manufacturer—suddenly are facing …

When Steve Furniss won the bronze medal in the 200-meter individual medley at the 1972 Munich Olympics, no one paid much attention to his nylon briefs adorned with the stars and stripes as he powered through the water. Just as he had when he swam competitively as a 10th-grader at Foothill High School northeast of Tustin, he pitted only his athletic ability against the pool.

Thirty-six years later, Furniss watched the Olympic races from the stands of the Water Cube arena in Beijing. Competitors broke 25 world records and set times he could only have dreamed of during his swimming career. One of those records was Michael Phelps’ 1:54.23 in the 200-meter individual medley, about 12 seconds faster than the world-record time Furniss swam in 1974—an astonishing gap in a sport where the difference between victory and defeat is sometimes measured in thousandths of a second.

In Beijing, the swimwear these record-breakers wore got almost as much as attention as their achievements. They weren’t wearing nylon briefs, but rather the sleek, hydrodynamically designed, full-body swimsuits that in the wake of last summer’s games have sparked a philosophical battle between purists who believe they have tarnished the sport—much as performance-enhancing drugs have tarnished baseball—and those who think swimmers deserve the same access to innovative technology as cyclists, pole vaulters, and other athletes.

Furniss is an intensely interested observer of this controversy. He is executive vice president of Tyr Sport Inc., the Huntington Beach swimwear company that makes the Tracer Rise suits worn in Beijing by swimmers such as U.S. team member Matt Grevers, who won a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke. Industry giant Speedo, with its equally high-tech LZR Racer suit, got the bulk of the headlines because Phelps, the most dominant athlete in the 2008 Games, was wearing that company’s suit.

Tyr has sunk three years and millions of dollars into developing the Tracer technology, and Furniss sees his job as providing “the best possible equipment and products” for swimmers to improve their performance. He points out that other sports have embraced technological innovation. “Should the sport [of swimming] not advance?” he asks. By the purists’ logic, wouldn’t professional tennis players still be using wooden rackets?

The critics, ironically, include Peter Daland, the legendary former USC swim coach who counts Furniss among his prize pupils. “I’m very much against suits deciding races rather than people,” he says. “It’s out of control.” Daland is hoping the sport’s international ruling body, Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), will ban performance-enhancing swimwear before the 2012 London Olympics.

With FINA reexamining its requirements for swimwear approval—and the powerful American Swimming Coaches Association supporting a return to pre-Beijing swimsuit technology—Furniss may, for once in his very successful life, be swimming against the tide.

 

Water is about 800 times denser than air, so it’s not surprising that human beings encounter some resistance when they swim in it. The technical term for the resistance is “drag,” and one form of drag—“skin friction”—results from the contact between human skin and the water. In addition, the nylon briefs of Furniss’ Olympic swims were highly permeable, that is, they absorbed water and slowed swimmers. Searching for any edge over physics in those days, swimmers began to shave all their body hair. 

The latest generation of competitive swimwear takes cues from marine mammals, which are highly evolved hydro-
dynamic marvels. The scales of a shark’s skin, for example, carry tiny ridge-like structures which decrease drag, accounting for their phenomenal speed and efficiency in the water. The surface of suits such as the Tracer 
Rise and Speedo’s
LZR Racer are designed to mimic the drag-defeating qualities of shark skin and include enough technical wizardry to make spandex briefs look prehistoric. Tyr’s suit is made of a highly compressed woven fabric coated with nonpermeable polyurethane, “muscle contour seaming” that limits “muscle undulation,” and “hydrophobic properties” to repel water—all for a hefty price of up to $450. So compressed is the suit’s material that it can take as long as 20 minutes for a swimmer to be inserted into it. Swimmers report that both Tracer Rise and LZR give them additional buoyancy, which increases speed as their body position barely dips beneath the surface. “You feel like you’re riding high in the water,” says Furniss.

“This technology hasn’t been seen before in the sport of swimming,” Furniss said at France’s Olympic trials in April 2008. “Tracer Rise propels the sport into a new direction by pushing the innovation envelope. … Fast just got faster.”

According to Tyr (pronounced “tier” and named for the Norse god of warriors and athletes), the suit can improve a swimmer’s performance in the pool by 4 percent. Speedo makes similar claims for the LZR Racer.

The next frontier for manufacturers is swimsuits that are completely nonpermeable and contain neoprene, a special rubber that helps a swimmer float even better. “We started working on the next generation [of suits] when we got done with the Beijing Olympics,” Furniss says. “We had an eight-hour meeting and talked about the new technology—what worked, what didn’t work.”

But if the purists have their way, the innovative momentum will come to a halt.

Critic Daland dismisses comparisons to other sports. He says tennis players, like cyclists or golfers, would not be able to perform without the “variable” of their equipment. Swimming, on the other hand, is supposed to be a contest of man against water, unaffected by artificial variables. Besides, Daland laments, the cost of the new suits “is keeping people from coming into swimming. Who’s going to pay $500 for a suit?”

By the 2012 Olympics, “my hope is we’ll get back to only briefs for the men and briefs and bikini top for the women,” Daland says. “We’ll all breathe a sigh of relief. It’s the most important thing we can achieve in swimming.” 

 

That opinion clearly isn’t shared at Tyr, where visitors to the company’s two-story headquarters in an industrial neighborhood of Huntington Beach are greeted in the lobby by an Olympian cardboard replica of the 6-foot-8 Grevers in full Tracer Rise regalia.

Furniss occupies a corner office on the second floor. At 6-foot-4, he’s not quite Grevers-sized, but at age 56, he still has the physique of a swimmer, with only a touch of gray in his blond hair. The Wisconsin native first swam competitively at a YMCA pool in Fresno. “It was the family sport,” he says with understatement; younger brother Bruce won two gold medals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. After the family moved to Orange County, the elder Furniss joined the Huntington Beach Aquatic Club, which also produced stars such as Gary Hall and Shirley Babashoff. Coach Daland remembers Furniss as a talented, hard-working swimmer and a “great leader”—he was captain of the U.S. team at the 1976 Olympics.

A display case in his office contains the Olympic bronze and two Pan American Games gold medals that Furniss won when swimming was an amateur—and somewhat less controversial—sport. He’s still as passionate about swimming as he was as a youngster getting up at 5 a.m. for training sessions. “There can’t be anyone who loves swimming more than Steve Furniss,” says Patti Kast, the founder of Kast-A-Way Swimwear, a Cincinnati-based distributor of Tyr products.

Furniss learned the performance swimwear business at Arena, the swimwear division of Adidas, where he worked for eight years after retiring from competitive swimming. In a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he explained that he left Arena to form his own company because “I considered myself a purist, and I had difficulty with Arena’s extension into services other than competitive swimwear and into swim fashion.” Tyr—acquired in 1999 by Swimwear Anywhere Inc., a New York-based fashion swimsuit maker—now is a solid No. 2 to Speedo, with about 25 percent of the U.S. market, putting it ahead of competitors such as Adidas and Nike.

Furniss admits to some concern about which regulations FINA will adopt for future competitions, including the 2012 Olympics. “There’s a lack of clarity about what the new rules will be,” he says. “It’s obviously a challenge for all manufacturers to figure out what technology is going to be allowed.”

At a meeting in May, FINA approved 202 suits, including Tracer Rise and the less expensive Tracer Light, under amended regulations that are valid through the end of this year. Among other things, the regulations limit nonpermeable material to “a maximum 50 percent of the total surface of the swimsuit for full-body models.” That put Tyr in compliance for the recent World Championships in Rome. But John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, has predicted that the rules for next year “will include a clause that eliminates all nonpermeable materials from all suits … This will place us back in time around 2007.” His personal preference would be to go back even further by allowing suits that only cover the swimmer’s body from navel to knees.

 

If FINA turns back the clock as far as Leonard advocates, all the investment in full-body suits will go down the drain—a bitter pill for Furniss, or any manufacturer, to swallow. Furniss doesn’t expect things to go that far. “We’ve been making suits for a long time, making them faster,” he says. “What’s the difference with 1973, when the East German women came to [the U.S. national championships] and wore suits we had not seen before? They were the first spandex or Lycra-based suits that had elastic properties. … I would propose that the technological advance at that time [over nylon suits] was on a par with the technological advance of long-body suits in 2000 and the technology employed in 2008.”

Furniss points out that swimming is advancing in ways other than sophisticated swimsuits—from deeper pools to the straight-arm freestyle sprinting stroke that Michael Phelps has been using. He also doesn’t see any conflict between his passion for the sport and the technological innovations which have some questioning whether it really is a sport any more. “Our job is not that of a rulemaker, our job is that of an innovator,” he says.

Despite questions about the future, Furniss continues to stroke for the horizon. While meeting with a visitor, he proudly displays Tyr’s new full-body Sayonara “swimskin” for triathletes, an open-water offshoot of the Tracer made from an ultrathin fabric invented in Japan. He says it has a drag coefficient identical to that of an F-4 Phantom jet.

As far as future swimsuits, Furniss says he “can’t even imagine what will be there in 2012.” And with so many questions unanswered, he’s trying not to imagine the worst.

Illustration by Randy Lyhus

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.

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