In 2008, Speedo got too good at making swimsuits.
Ninety-eight percent of medal winners that year wore the company's LZR Racer, a zip-sealed full-body suit that carried many top athletes — including Michael Phelps — to gold.
But after those games, the sport's international governing body changed the rules to outlaw the LZR by banning zippers and restricting mens' suit coverage from the navel to the knees. So Speedo went back to the drawing board and spent years developing what's now known as the Fastskin3 system.
"Instead of just focusing on one item — the swimsuit — we focused on all the products [swimmers] use," Speedo Aqualab research manager Joseph Santry tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.
That meant not just the suit, but the swimmers' goggles and cap. Fifty-five-thousand man hours later — and with input from experts in hydrodynamics, aircraft engineering and advanced textile manufacturing — Speedo built a system it says can reduce drag on a swimmer by as much as 16 percent.
"What we're confident in is that this Fastskin3 system is the fastest system available," Santry says.
To build the suit system, researchers scanned athletes' heads, using 3-D imaging to measure their exact eye-socket dimensions for custom-calibrated goggles. They developed a two-cap system to better streamline drag on the head. And they created a new fabric Santry says only Speedo has access to — one that actually compresses a swimmer's body three times that of the old full-body LZR suits.
"We use a fabric that allows us to add compression in where we need it," he explains. "Over the chest, and the hips, and the bum, for example, we need to compress that tissue into a very tubular form."
The suit is good, Santry says. But it's not perfect.
"Before I came up here to the Olympics, we had been sitting down having quite long conversations about what we can do for 2016," he says. "We want to keep pushing the limits."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're wondering what Michael Phelps was wearing when he won that final gold medal, a custom-designed swimsuit, goggles and cap, all made by Speedo that has origins in the 2008 Beijing games. What happened was that in 2008, Speedo basically became too good at making swimsuits, 98 percent of Olympic swimming medals won that year were awarded to athletes wearing the company's LZR Racer suit.
It was a full-body suit that helped swimmers like Phelps shatter world record after another. So after those games, the sport's international governing body changed the rules.
JOSEPH SANTRY: So they released a new set of rules in 2009, which meant we couldn't cover the full body of the swimmer. We could only cover on men from the knee to the stomach and on women from the knee to the shoulder.
RAZ: Joe Santry is the research manager for Speedo's Aqualab in Nottingham, England.
SANTRY: And what we did this time around is instead of just focusing on one item of the products use - the swimsuit - we focused on all of the products use. So we created a system. So - and this includes the cap and goggles and the suit. And we've developed all of these products together to optimize the hydrodynamics of that swimmer.
RAZ: Speedo calls it the Fastskin3 racing system. Many top athletes are wearing it in London. Santry says it can reduce drag on a swimmer by up to 16 percent. That's huge in a sport that can hinge on a tenth of a second.
SANTRY: (Unintelligible) to explain it. We've got two caps actually. We've got a cap and top, which you'll see, which is a silicon cap. Underneath that cap, there's actually a secret hair management cap, we call it. And it's almost like an aerodynamic cycling helmet you might get in a time-trial event. And then when you go into the goggles, we use 3-D head scanning. So we scan a lot of athletes' heads, and from that, we took the exact eye-socket dimensions.
And that - those dimensions are used to create a perfect seal. So the seal on these new goggles is so comfortable and very confident. As soon as they're very confident, they're not going to leak. And we test these experimentally. So, for example, the fabric, we tested in a water flume. We would drag athletes through a pool, which could measure the drag on that athlete in different suits. What we're confident in is actually, this Fastskin3 system is the fastest system available. And if an athlete chooses the right parts of that system, they can get really, really good times and good performance improvements.
RAZ: I read that it can take the female swimmers up to an hour to get into this new swimsuit, the Fastskin3. Why is it so hard to get into?
SANTRY: So this suit - because it's a full coverage suit on the back, so we don't have an open back on this suit where you would normally climb into a suit. And on the suits in 2008, they have a zip. But within this new set of rules, the zips have been banned. So actually, to get into this suit, you stretch the arm hole open and you climb into the suit through the arm hole and then you pull the arm over your head. So the first time someone does it, it's quite daunting. But once you've got used to it - Rebecca Adlington takes about five, six minutes to get into the suit. Michael Phelps can do it in a couple.
RAZ: Now, for the women, it is a full, obviously, a full body suit. And I read that it actually compresses, you know, their bodies more than the laser suits did.
SANTRY: Yeah. So the (unintelligible) on a suit in this one is that we created a new fabric. And only we have this fabric, and it's specially created for us, and it took a year to develop. What it allows us to do is create a very tubeless shape for the swimmer. So other swimmer goes through the water, they're slowed down by the water passing over the lumps and bumps on their body. So to make them faster, what we have to do is try and make them into torpedo-type shape. To do this, we use a fabric, which allows us to add compression in where we need it. So over the chest and the hips and the bum, for example, we need to compress that tissue and that body into a very tubular form. So we've added more compression into the fabric at key locations.
RAZ: Now, I understand that you are already planning for Rio in 2016. Like, you are already thinking about the next swimsuit in your lab.
SANTRY: Yep. So actually, before I came up here to the Olympics, we have been sitting down having quite long conversations about what we can do for 2016 and how we can impact swimming again with a new set of products, a new holistic solution to performance swimming. We want to keep pushing the limits, keep up with new technology as new technology comes out. And ultimately, we want to give the swimmer the best product they can possibly wear to attain their goals at the Olympics.
RAZ: That's Joe Santry. He's the research manager for Speedo's Aqualab. He spoke to us from just outside the main venue of the London Olympic Games. Joe, thanks so much.
SANTRY: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.