March 18, 2010

By Judd Spicer
Special to

MINNEAPOLIS -- Michael Phelps’ achievements (or exploits) aside, swimming isn’t generally the first sport you’ll see covered when you open up your morning paper or visit your favorite jock website.

But with 70 NCAA swimming records broken in 2008-09, the debate over the use of high-tech suits caused a splash in the pool generally reserved for cannonballs.

Last summer, FINA, the sport’s international governing body, opted to ban suits that were full-body length for men, and non-textile suits that were not permeable to water and air. For women, the same fabric regulations apply and the ban stated that suit coverage cannot go past the shoulder. Within months, both USA Swimming and the NCAA followed ... suit.

At the Division III Swimming and Diving Championships at Minnesota’s University Athletic Center, the swimmers have let their performance speak on the matter. Sans speed suits, three championship records were broken on the first day of competition alone. The most stunning was Caroline Wilson of Williams College (Williamstown, Mass.), who set a record of 4:45.47 in the 500 freestyle -- crushing the previous record of 4:47.04 set by Emory’s Liz Horvat in Minneapolis last year.

But while the swimmers let the clock to the talking, some of the leading coaches at the meet spoke openly of their diverse takes on the suit debate.

“I definitely think that the sport is better without the high-tech suits,” said Kenyon coach Jim Steen, whose Lords have a commanding lead over Emory after two days. “I think that, probably, 90 percent of the coaches in the country feel that way. There been a much better job of defining what apparel can be worn, and it doesn’t give as much of a technological advantage to certain individuals. There been a real sigh of relief that we’re now back to simpler times, simple suits, and it’s the athlete that determines -- as much as anything -- whether a swimmer is successful or not. When things move too quick and too fast without any oversight and without any real defining of guidelines -- I think the international governing body just really dropped the ball on things.”

But Steen’s stance is the polar opposite of Denison coach Gregg Parini, who swam for Steen, and led the Denison to the women’s title in 2001.

“I was a fan of the new suits. I loved the new suits,” Parini said.. “I love technological innovation, and I think it was good for our sport. When was the last time you saw swimming on the world headlines of all the sports pages? Every other sport innovates, so why not swimming?

“With that said, I think our kids are showing that maybe the suits really didn’t matter as much as people thought they did. Whether you’re talking D I, II, or III, I see kids continue trying to push the envelope and get better. So maybe some of the improvements we saw last year shouldn’t have been as attributed as much to the suits as to the swimmers.”

Another former Steen charge, Jon Howell, the coach of two-time women’s champion Emory (2005 and 2006) was in the same lane as his former Kenyon coach.

“I thought the suits were a little over-rated last year, and unfortunately there were some great swims that didn’t get the credit they deserved because of the suits,” said Howell, whose women’s team led the NCAA championships after two days of competition. “So, I’m happy to see them rolled back, be a little more pure, because I think it puts it back on the swimmers and gives them the credit they deserve.”

Howell concurs with Parini that the suits may not again meet these competitive waters:

“I don’t think they’ll come back in that form. I think they’ll continue to push the technology under the current guidelines, but I don’t see the suits coming back at that same level.”