Michael Phelps retires from the London Olympics and from his swimming career as the most decorated Olympic athlete ever. Over the course of the Athens, Beijing, and London Olympic Games he’s earned 22 medals, 18 of which have been golds.
Phelps is no doubt a product of precision training, diehard dedication, and outstanding talent, but he’s also had cutting-edge technology on his side… and head and eyes.
At the 2012 London Olympics Phelps wore Speedo’s FASTSKIN3 hydrodynamic racing system—goggles, cap and suit—which Speedo claims improves oxygen economy by 11 percent and reduces drag by up to 16 percent.
This isn’t the first time Speedo gear has made headlines. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics 98 percent of Olympic swimming medals were won by athletes wearing Speedo.
The infamous full-body polyurethane LZR suit was banned by the International Olympic Committee after the Beijing windfall. But Speedo came back with a vengeance this year with the FASTSKIN3.
On male swimmers the FASTSKIN covers the knee to stomach and on women the knee to shoulder. The suits are designed to compress swimmers’ bodies into a streamlined torpedo—the FASTSKIN actually gives more compression that the banned LZR.
There are no zippers on the suit, the IOC banned zippers after the 2008 Olympics to prevent companies from creating wetsuit-like apparel for swimmers. Instead, female swimmers had to put on their FASTSKIN suits my climbing into the armhole, and if you think that sounds difficult, it is, just ask Rebecca Adlington.
The air-permeable suit fabric is top-secret and can only be made on a handful of special machines, which Speedo owns exclusively. The suit—a product of Nottingham, England based Aqualab—took four years and 55,000 man-hours to create, and the entire swim system represents the best minds in kinesiology, biomechanics, fluid dynamics and sports psychology.
The Speedo goggles were much improved this year. You may recall Phelps’ tantrum at the Beijing Olympics when his $30 store-bought Speedo goggles leaked and he couldn’t see the wall of the pool. This didn’t prevent Phelps from winning gold—he estimated where the wall was by counting strokes—but still, annoying, right?
You’d think that top Olympic swimmers could manage to find better goggles. But up until recently it was widely believed that you couldn’t improve on goggles above the $30 price range.
For the London Olympics Speedo made sure it got it right by using 3D scanning for exact eye-socket dimensions. The goggles also have a blue-gray tinge to the lenses to instill a sense of calm.
- Fourteenth-century Persian pearl divers wore goggles with polished tortoiseshell lenses.
- Sixteenth-century Polynesian skin divers wore wooden goggles without lenses. The frames trapped air around the eye when the divers went under, creating an air bubble through which they could see.
- To prepare Michael Phelps for all eventualities (and just for fun), swim coach Bob Bowman deliberately stood on Phelp’s goggles at pre-London swim meets so that they would leak during training.
The FASTSKIN3 swim cap is double layered, a silicon top cap and an inside hair-management cap. Like an aerodynamic cycling helmet in a time trial events, it has an teardrop shape. The cap has a special place for women’s hair that creates a tail on the back of the head.
The Aqualab team had much more flexibility in the design of the cap and goggles this time around, partly because of new 3D printer it acquired. Rather than having to draw designs and send them off to a manufacturer who would take months to deliver, the team fabricated prototypes of the cap and goggles in just a few hours, making tweaks to the design quickly and easily. The 3D printer was especially handy for the goggles, which were designed from scratch at the Aqualab.