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Does DeScenza gain or lose by her world record? Suit yourself

July 29, 2009 |  2:23 pm


American Mary DeScenza is the latest (pick one) a) beneficiary or b) unwitting victim of the total incompetence that the leaders of the international swimming federation (FINA) have revealed in their handling of the high-tech swimsuit issue over the past two years.

DeScenza, of Naperville, Ill., whose elite swimming career had been excellent if unexceptional until Wednesday morning, suddenly did something that until last year would have been a great mark of distinction.

The sad thing is what should have been a career achievement for DeScenza -- setting a world record in the World Swimming Championships at Rome -- has become almost inconsequential because she did it in one of the soon-to-banned suits that have rendered world records meaningless.

When DeScenza lowered her personal best in the 200-meter butterfly by nearly three seconds with a time of 2 minutes, 4.14 seconds (four-one-hundredths better than the previous record), she made as clear a statement as anyone about the efficacy of these rubberized, polyurethane suits.

Rather than compete in equipment made by her sponsor, Tyr, whose latest high-tech model already has been banned, DeScenza chose to wear a suit made by the Italian company Jaked. She did her best to black out the Jaked name on the suit so as not to offend Tyr, which gave its contracted athletes the option of using other equipment if they felt disadvantaged by remaining loyal.

DeScenza's world record was among the 22 set in the first four days of the championships. The previous best was 16 at the 1973 worlds, when there were fewer events but the East German women were obliterating records with chemical rather than technological doping.

Phelps3a One new record came Wednesday from Michael Phelps, wearing one of the now-outdated Speedo LZR legging suits (which also will be banned sometime next year because they go below the knee), who crushed his own 200 butterfly record (1:52.03) with a time of 1:51.51.

Although some might say that gives credence to the notion that the suits aren't the sole recipe for all the records, I would point out these two things:

1.  Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever and utterly on a planet of his own in the 200 fly (as well as the individual medley events, which he is not swimming in Rome), yet even his ability was not enough to overcome Paul Biedermann's suit-enhanced swim in Tuesday's 200 freestyle.

2.  The Speedo LZR is where this technology began to run wild last year.  Fifty-one of the 55 long-course (50-meter pool) world records broken in 2008 came from swimmers wearing the LZR, which had polyurethane panels rather than the all-poly fabrics in the new Jaked01 and Arena X-Glide suits.

Since I noted in Tuesday's Blog that it seemed hypocritical for Germany's Biedermann to denounce the rules allowing him to use the X-Glide suit that he wore to beat Phelps, I have had several interesting e-mail exchanges with a reader upset at my characterization of Biedermann. She felt the LZR wearers crying foul (Phelps, for one, has pointedly chosen to take the high road and give Biedermann full credit) were the hypocrites since they had the advantage of better technology at the Beijing Olympics.

The big difference in the two situations is the changed attitude of the other manufacturers and national swimming federations toward use of whatever suit gives the best chance to win. That is the all-poly suits, which add flotation and streamline the body with their extreme compression.

Last year, Speedo brought 3,000 extra LZR suits to Beijing and made them available to anyone who wanted to use them. But federations did not want to deny their swimsuit sponsors the chance for Olympic exposure, which effectively left no choice for the swimmers from non-Speedo countries, which helped the Speedo-suited powers, the United States and Australia.

This year, in the chaos FINA unleashed by allowing anything without a motor, the countries and manufacturers decided medals meant more than contracts, especially since all this is expected to go back to square one when (if?)  the new rules approved this week requiring suits made of textiles go into effect sometime in 2010.

Lurking behind the fiasco is the nasty little secret that accelerated FINA's cave-in to technology, which was outlined clearly by the Sydney Morning Herald's Richard Hinds in a Wednesday story. As Hinds noted, televised swimming is little more than a lot of water splashed by athletes whose faces are almost completely invisible (save backstrokers) once they start racing.  But TV enlivened the picture several years ago with its own technology advance, the "world record line,'' which adds the interest of comparing the swimmer to the world-record pace.

What does that mean? The more world records, the better.

But now the sport has to deal with the unintended consequence of that attitude.

The backlash against the suits has forced FINA to go back to the future, and it seems likely that few of the records set in 2008 and 2009 by swimmers in Speedo, Jaked or Arena suits will be broken for years to come by swimmers in all-textile suits. Even Phelps, who set plenty of world records without the LZR, will be hard pressed to lower the times he has clocked with it.

FINA now can choose to return to the records as of Jan. 1, 2008, put asterisks next to any records set after that or simply leave the current records as they are. All those choices make FINA look stupid -- which is an accurate reflection of the only quality the international federation has displayed unequivocally regarding the swimsuit issue.

Which brings us back to DeScenza, for whom this world meet likely will be the high-water mark of a career in which she has twice fallen just short of making the Olympics. She finished second in a semifinal Wednesday and advanced to Thursday's 200 fly final with a time slightly slower (2:04.33) than her world record, which miraculously has stood for several hours.

"I didn't even think I was going that fast,'' DeScenza said of her record swim.

Who would, in a suit doing some of the work for them?

-- Philip Hersh

Photo, top: Mary DeScenza climbs across a lane line after setting a world record in a suit with maker's name blacked out to protect her sponsor, a different company. Credit: Mark Terrill / Associated Press

Photo, bottom: Michael Phelps, in his Speedo LZR leggings, before the start of his world-record swim in Wednesday's 200 butterfly final. Credit: Filippo Monteforte / Getty Images