- Michael Phelps could sense the question coming long before it was asked.
After all, new, high-tech swimsuits and their legality in competition have been the talk of the swimming world since the Beijing Olympics. They're the main topic of conversation for the 800 swimmers at the U.S. nationals, which begin today at the Indiana University Natatorium. World records are falling, and FINA, the sport's governing body, has said that virtually every suit on the market will be legal, at least until 2010, when officials plan to reassess suit standards. As a result, swimmers from around the globe have been scrambling into new suits, desperate to make sure they won't be left behind in someone else's technological wake.
Most swimmers, though, don't get paid millions of dollars to wear a certain brand of suit, as Phelps does. So when someone did finally ask him about his decision to continue wearing a Speedo LZR Racer, and whether he felt as if he would be competing with a handicap this week, Phelps had to repeat the question aloud, slowly, just to wrap his head around the idea.
"Will I be competing with a handicap?" Phelps said, smiling and then pausing while weighing his answer. "Here is what I have to say to all your swimsuit questions: I've worn Speedo my whole life. And that's what I'm wearing this week."
Phelps is probably fast enough that it shouldn't matter what suit he wears. Even if he did want to experiment with one of the new suits generating so much buzz - like the Arena X-Glide or Jaked 01, which have helped European swimmers break several world records recently - his contract with Speedo would certainly prohibit it.
But the rest of the swimming world has been obsessing over the dilemma of what to wear, almost like starlets agonizing about which red-carpet outfit to choose for the Oscars. The consequences, however, are probably more severe. It could mean the difference between going to the FINA world championships in Rome this month and staying home.
Questions about just how much a swimsuit's technology should factor into a swimmer's performance are nothing new. They arose during the Beijing Games when nearly every world record was broken, most of those by athletes wearing the LZR Racer, a suit designed with the help of NASA to reduce drag and improve oxygen intake.
But Speedo might have created a technological race it couldn't keep up with. Since the Olympics, world records have continued to tumble, something that usually doesn't happen post-Games, and it has plenty of swimmers concerned that the technology has gotten out of hand.
Companies like Arena, Jaked, and blueseventy have designed suits that seem to be even faster than Speedo's models because they better compress a swimmer's muscles and allegedly help the athlete stay on top of the water by trapping air inside the suit. FINA initially said swimmers could not wear them in competition but then reversed that decision, choosing to allow nearly all the suits until Jan. 1.
"I think when you look around the world, it's pretty clear that the Jaked, blueseventy and the X-Glide are the suits to be in," said American breaststroker Eric Shanteau, who said he hasn't made up his mind what suit he'll wear. "It makes no difference to me. We can go back to swimming in briefs for all I care. I just want it to be equal. I had to sit back and watch the rest of the world swim really fast, and I feel like, 'OK, now it's my turn.' "
Shanteau, who isn't sponsored by a swimsuit manufacturer, has the luxury to experiment, unlike some athletes. He said the feeling on the pool deck is that FINA needs to step in and make some changes, but until then, it's open season on the record book.
"We keep saying, 'OK, we're all about to go times we're never going to touch again,' " Shanteau said.
"That's going to create a situation akin to the steroids era in baseball," said Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman. "World records might be set that won't be sniffed again for 10-plus years.
"You're going to have to have something like an asterisk next to them. I'm not sure that's the best thing for our sport."
Towson swimmer Katie Hoff, who signed a 10-year deal with Speedo in 2005, said the prospect of going faster in another suit isn't worth it to her.
"Speedo has been loyal to me, and it's not worth it to me to jump on the latest bandwagon," Hoff said. "I just hate reading articles, and in parentheses it now has the suit they wore. I can't wait to go back to the textile suits - which I'm told is what will eventually happen - and then we'll really be able to see the swimmer up there and not what suit is up there."
U.S. national championships When: Today-Saturday
Where: Indiana University Natatorium, Indianapolis
TV: 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. today and Wednesday, Universal Sports; 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, NBCCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun