Seeing Other People

USA Swimming breaks up with Speedo, hooks up with Arena... And what that means for the sport... They see themselves in iconic company with Xerox and Kleenex and Coke. Companies whose names became synonymous with the products they sold. It's not a photo copy or a tissue or a soda, it's the brand itself. For swimmers, for decades, you wore a Speedo, as in a tight-fitting racing suit. For a very long time, they were one of the ultimate examples of this name-branded success. No longer.

It's time to remove Speedo from that list of brand behemoths that own their categories with ubiquitous dominance. They've lost a stroke and the biggest evidence of all just presented itself. After 27 years, they are no longer the exclusive sponsor of the greatest swim team on earth - USA Swimming. Days ago, the folks at USA Swimming announced that it was now pursuing an open marriage, opening themselves to non-exclusive deals with other swimwear sponsors. Its new suitor and the new title sponsor of the U.S. National Team? Speedo's biggest rival, Arena.

Now this is a bit like being married to Michael Phelps for many years, and then one day the wife says to Michael - You know, honey, I think it's time we saw other people... And then she jumps into bed with Ryan Lochte. But, you know, she still stays with Michael, sort of, when it's convenient.

That's one way to describe what happened to Speedo. After three decades with a virtual monopoly over Team USA, it's a fair bet that they were blindsided when Arena made a move on their trophy wife. They used to own the sport - almost literally. What do swimmers wear? Speedos. You don't get more entrenched in a sport than that. And because of that broad dominance, it only makes sense that they also owned the world's best swimmers.

Except over the last few years, when it comes to swimwear, they really haven't been the state of the art. They haven't had the best suit on the market in almost five years - not since the game-changing LZR Racer, back in 2008. Competitors, from fellow apparel giants like Arena to scrappy upstarts like Jaked, were able to steal much of Speedo's world beating thunder over the last Olympiad.

The prospect of Arena becoming the lead sponsor of USA Swimming was no small consideration out in Colorado Springs. You're talking about a long-standing, at times incestuous relationship with deep roots. Not long ago, this break would have been unthinkable. If Phelps were still swimming, it's unlikely it would have happened at all. Michael was the 800-pound gorilla in the pool. In many senses, he was the sport for many years. If Speedo had his loyalty locked up in contract, then it could be sure it would keep Phelps's Team USA in line too.

Do you remember the 2009 World Championships in Rome? The meet where the saga of the supersuits climaxed with an unfortunate orgy of absurd world records... Remember the 100 fly, when Phelps smoked Mike Cavic in a bitter coda to Beijing? Do you recall his defiant post-race celebration, when he held up the Speedo logo on his suit for the cameras and slapped his chest? At the time, it seemed he was saying: "See, motherfuckers? Speedo's still the best!" Yet, in retrospect, this is what he was actually saying: "See, motherfuckers? I'm so good, I can still win despite wearing an inferior product."

Because let's be honest, by that point Phelps was swimming at a disadvantage in his LZR Racer. He was just that much better - than Cavic, and everyone else.

The same can be said of Ryan Lochte these days. He's the new face of the sport - and the biggest thoroughbred in Speedo's stable. If his latest Speedo suit happens to be a few tenths slower than the gear from Arena or others, well, you'll need more than that to close the gap on Lochte. But having the best swimmer doesn't mean you have the best product.

Indeed, when top American coaches and swimmers were approached about this impending Arena game-change, the news was met mostly with shrugs. But that's what I already want to wear, many seemed to say. This is not to say the current status quo of swimsuits will remain. These things are ever changing and Speedo may very well reclaim its technological superiority in the near future.

However, it's not all product that led to the split with USA Swimming. It was more about marketing. When you have an exclusive deal, it really is a marriage. Have a great new promotional idea for U.S. Nationals? Gotta get Speedo's approval first. Want to sell some slick advertising when NBC airs Pan Pacs? Sorry, Speedo doesn't do commercials. USA Swimming's hands were tied. And there were plenty of others out there eager to untie them. Which is why some ears perked up when Arena came knocking...

It will be very interesting to witness how all of this washes out. Both Arena and Speedo just signed eight-year deals with USA Swimming. Speedo will keep the "title rights" to Juniors and Sectionals and its presence on deck at every meet will still be impossible to miss. It will also continue to sponsor many of the greatest swimmers on earth, first and foremost being Mr. Lochte. Yet, it has now been relegated to second wife status. It's unlikely that Speedo will appreciate this clear demotion.

What will that mean when Ryan Lochte is handed a pair of Arena Team USA warm-ups next summer at World Championships? His attention-grabbing shoes and the suit he wears will still be made by Speedo, but the logo of their biggest competitor will be splashed across his warm-ups behind the blocks. For many years, Arena and TYR and others were forced to sit on their hands and suck it up on the other side of the fence. Athletes like Rebecca Soni and Matt Grevers might make most of their living from Arena and TYR, but they were wearing Speedo behind the blocks in London this summer. Now the shoe's on the other foot.

Unless you happen to work for Speedo or have a contract with them, this is good news for the entire sport. Open markets mean more competition. Speedo has been told - publicly and without subtlety - to step up its game. The preeminent swim team on earth is no longer assuming that its long marriage is working.

For the good of swimmers everywhere, they decided to see other people.

What Are You Wearing?

Speedo restarts the suit wars... Is this really happening again? Please tell me it's not happening again. The rhetoric certainly sounds familiar. The new technology is "revolutionary", unprecedented and performance-enhancing, world records will fall thanks to Speedo's latest innovation. The winter before the next Games, it must be time to stir up swimmers' suit insecurities... Because if you're not wearing the latest and greatest from Speedo, you can't possibly hope to compete for Olympic gold. (Right, Coach Schubert?)

Weren't we supposed to be done with this? Did anyone learn anything from that dark saga of the super suits back in 2008 and 2009? Well, we learned that polyurethane is bad, and that full suit coverage across men's torsos is unacceptable. We learned that artificial buoyancy amounts to cheating. We learned about things like compression and the nature of material that is far better than your own skin when trying to propel yourself through water at high speeds.

We also learned that suit makers really really want to be a part of the action. They want to be in the game, not just attached to it. They need to have a hand in those records. They want credit, damn your speed-reducing regulation!

The tone deaf nature of Speedo's latest announcement was comical. Last week, they introduced their new "Fastskin 3" -- now it's a system not just a suit. Fast suits are so 2009... Now you need a brand new ultra futuristic cap and goggles too! (Who knew this site would be so presciently named...) Take a look at aquabots Lochte and Phelps sporting their latest armor at last week's unveiling. Please try not to smirk...

Now, you can't blame the athletes for their glowing endorsements or for the goofy ways they're forced to model this stuff. Phelps said it makes him feel like a "torpedo" and that records would surely fall in London thanks to his sponsor's latest assistance. Lochte added that he now "feels as one" with his suit. I'd say the same thing if they paid me to say it. And what they're saying is probably true. I'm sure it works and I'm sure these guys are being genuine when they say it. But can we please have some self-awareness here, Speedo? Or at least some tact?

This is the company that led the way in dismantling the record books thanks to innovations that crossed every line of performance enhancement. Their LZR Racer was the first (but soon not the best) suit to make an utter mess of the sport. Less than two years after that LZR and its various spawn were banned, it might be appropriate for Speedo to acknowledge the market they warped and how the swimming community just might perceive that they're now doing the exact same thing again. Just with a new set of rules - ones that they're writing. Some free advice to Speedo's Public Relations team: Mention it. Say, perhaps, "we realize the swimming community has entered a new era of competition and performance, one not dependent on apparel, but on the body itself." Go on to state how respectful you are as a company of that important line, how you are there to assist not to enhance the performance of the swimmers wearing your gear.

This will be complete crap, of course. You won't mean it, but that's not important. At least pretend that you recognize how you might be perceived.

Instead, you trot out more scientists. Except this time, instead of citing NASA geniuses as your inspiration, you mention the innovators behind CGI special effects in film as your guides... You wheel out the head of your "Aqualab" in London, a guy named Tom Waller, who says that "we believe we're the only manufacturer to have ever designed something to work in unison. Taken together this is the fastest stuff we've ever created."

Yes, the same script you were using four years ago... Except if you can no longer tamper with the suit quite as much as you'd like, you go looking for new terrain. Let's face it, in swimming, there's not a lot to work with. You need to get creative in order to corrupt that essential purity of body moving through water... And so, you're left with the cap and goggles. How to get rid of that annoying, less than streamlined, face and head of every swimmer? By coming up with THIS.

There are plenty of folks out there who might applaud all this, call it "progress." Who might point to the long evolution of swimwear, back to the days of wearing wool, and shrug at just another improvement in a constantly evolving process. Or maybe you just love gear. Plenty of sports worship the stuff. Consider it an essential element of the game. But here's the thing:

Up until around the turn of the century, the evolution of swimwear was about freeing the body, getting the gear out of the way. From wool to nylon to paper... Some of those men's paper suits worn at the '96 Olympics were borderline pornographic in their coverage. (Here's looking at you, Tom Dolan!) They made Brazilian beach goers look demure. Then, the entire process was reversed. Suit makers realized that shaved skin was actually quite inferior to the fabrics they could come up with.

And now they've realized that shaving your head and wearing a pair of Swedish goggles isn't nearly streamlined enough.

What will they think of next? How about getting out of the way?