Last July, at a small swimming meet in Athens, Ga., Michael Phelps stood on the starting blocks wearing a plain, black swimsuit. No logo, no frills and nothing that would raise an eyebrow - at least, until he hit the water.
Wearing a prototype suit that was still under top-secret development, Phelps zipped through the 200-meter freestyle in the fastest time an American has ever managed on his home soil. It was the first hint of what was to come. Today - more than a year after Phelps first wore the suit and exactly one year before the Beijing Olympics begin - swimming enthusiasts are already abuzz over how 21st-century technology might translate to the pool next summer and what it might do to some of the sport's most venerable records.
"This is the technology now. When Mark Spitz swam, he didn't have goggles to train with. Things change," four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans said. "And there will always be changes. In 12 years we'll be complaining that these suits are really slow, and the suits they're wearing in 2020 will have rocket jets or something."
Speedo's Fastskin FS-Pro is the first of several elite suits to hit the market in the year before the Olympics. The form-fitting full-body suit takes advantage of a newly patented fiber, woven in such a way to cut down on drag and increase buoyancy. Already, the early returns have reshaped the sport's record books.
Phelps donned the FS-Pro again in February and set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly. The next month at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, Phelps set five world records and captured seven gold medals. And it wasn't just Phelps. In all, 12 world records were broken in Melbourne in the FS-Pro, and Americans set 21 national records.
"It gives you those extra tenths or hundredths that you need," said Phelps, who was integral in the development and testing of the new suit.
Phelps and Towson's Katie Hoff, who won three golds at the world championships and set one world record, are both sponsored by Speedo, so their praise for the suit is not surprising. But the new technology - and the record-breaking times associated with it - is creating waves throughout the sport.
At the national championships last week in Indianapolis, Dara Torres, wearing the FS-Pro, won the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, setting an American record in the latter event. She is 40 years old and gave birth to a daughter 15 months ago.
No world records fell at the national meet, but seven of the eight U.S. Open records that were set were done so wearing FS-Pro. In all, Speedo athletes took home four out of every five medals.
Speedo's technology includes a finely woven water-repellent microfiber that cuts down on drag and features localized compression, which Speedo officials say reduces swimmers' energy loss. Rival companies are also busy working on their Olympic suits.
In addition to Nike's line of competitive swimwear, Reebok entered the swimming business last year, and Adidas might return soon as well. Many also expect Baltimore-based Under Armour to be in the game before the 2012 Games.
TYR Sports Inc. is considered by many to be just behind Speedo in the swimming marketplace. The California-based company won't release its Olympic suit - billed as 55 percent lighter than its 2004 elite model - until January but has already dipped its new technology into the pool. Erik Vendt wore the unreleased TYR model at the nationals and picked up two golds, including a meet record in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
Industry leaders concede that in terms of numbers and times, it's difficult to quantify the exact impact this new technology might have on the sport.
"Clearly every manufacturer thinks they have their finger on the pulse," says Evan Morgenstein, a leading Olympic sports agent, "that they have the fastest suit in the world."
Swimmers say wearing the tight-fitting suit is a huge boost even before anyone hits the water.
"I don't know about shaving seconds but it definitely gives you more confidence," Hoff says.
But that confidence actually translates into shaved seconds. If a swimmer believes he or she has the best possible equipment up on the blocks, the comfort level going into the water can't be tested in a wind tunnel or simulated on a computer.
"I don't know how much it helps you," says Summer Sanders, who won two gold medals at the 1992 Games. "I'm sure it does to a certain extent, but I always felt like the shaving, those little things that you did, were psychological more than anything else. If it psychologically helps you better your time ... then it is faster."
Thirty years ago, the world's best swimmers were wearing nylon that, compared with today's fabrics, carried water like a sponge. A year from now in Beijing, the world's best swimmers will be dressed like superheroes, wearing finely woven, newly developed fabrics that enable talented athletes like Phelps to zip through the pool and blast through the record books.