That began the most revolutionary aspects of the system: redesigning the goggles and cap. They scanned the heads of athletes from around the world and merged the results in a software program to generate an average head shape, one that fits 95 percent of people. Santry, who has developed helmets for cyclists, noted that time trial racers use an aerodynamic teardrop shape. They designed a swimmer’s cap that does something similar,building a place for a woman’s hair that creates a tail on the back of the head.
“From research done in Beijing we knew goggles and caps caused a lot of drag, but this time round we had the internal expertise and time to produce a research-driven goggle from scratch,” Santry adds. “This allowed us to really get playing in that area and take the crazy superhero-type sketches to reality.”
A new 3-D printer at Aqualab fabricated prototypes of the cap and goggles for testing within hours, rather than sending drawings to a manufacturer and waiting weeks or months. “In the past we couldn’t do many changes to the original design,” Santry says. “With this process, we completely revolutionized the goggle from scratch.”
For the suit, the team spent a year inventing a new fabric that creates compression changes across its surface where more lycra is knitted into some areas. In the end, Fastskin is Spanx on steroids, compressing a body three times more than the LZR. The suit constricts the stomach the least and the chest, buttocks and hips the most, attempting to mold swimmers into an unblemished tube.
Speedo has applied for nine patents for the Fastskin-3. The company says only six machines in the world are capable of producing the compression fabric; it owns all of them.
In the final stages of testing, athletes wearing the suits were pulled in a high-tech pool lab at the InnoSportlab De Tongelreep in the Netherlands recorded by underwater cameras and a drag measurement system. Speedo claims the Fastskin-3, when measured against a standard suit, reduces passive drag, the resistance produced by a swimmer's body while it is held in a streamlined position, by 16.6 percent and active drag, the resistance at the surface, by 5.2 percent. By measuring oxygen in and out of the body while swimmers pulled themselves over an underwater ladder, researchers at Iowa State reported the system improves oxygen economy by 11 percent.
“It’s like miles per gallon in a car,” Santry says. “You can swim at the same speed, but use less fuel. It allows a swimmer to go harder for longer.”
Speedo scanned its key athletes to create a 3-D avatar to size the suit. Just wearing the Fastskin requires athleticism. Some female swimmers, who step into the suit through an armhole, reported it took them as much as an hour to wriggle into it on their first attempt. Santry says it can be done in 10 to 15 minutes with practice. “The first time you do it, it’s daunting,” he adds. “There’s quite a bit of compression in the suit. It can feel a bit alien.”
How much faster does that tight, tubular fit help a swimmer in a 500-meter race? “We haven’t gotten down to that detail,” he replies. “When you’re comparing suits, there are so many different factors.”
He points out that Phelps, Rebecca Adlington and Ryan Lochte swam their best times in years using the system in recent months (all have lucrative sponsorship deals with Speedo; Phelps earned a $1 million bonus for his 2008 performance, which he donated to charity).