Swim gear review: De Soto's T1 two-piece wetsuit

Credit: Courtesy www.desotosport.com
"I feel like a sausage in a casing!"

"I can barely breathe!"

"Why cant I move my arms?"

"This zipper is killing my neck!"

Chances are that you have heard these desperate cries for help not in the latest Friday the 13th installment (though its possible), but rather at a triathlon or open-water swim.

The pre-race ritual of squeezing into a wetsuit is an unavoidable and necessary component to the race experience but until recently it has always been somewhat of an ordeal: people stumble as they step clumsily into their rubber straightjackets, knocking over a row of thousand-dollar bikes.

Swimmers beg strangers to "zip them up," only to get ponytails and other parts of their person caught in the unforgiving teeth. Worst of all, wetsuits make athletes feel so constricted that their entire stroke technique changes for the worse, their body going rigid, their muscles turning tense.

I have recently discovered a wetsuit that will change all that. No more feeling like a sausage. No more feeling claustrophobic. No more feeling a zipper carve a crater into the base of your neck.

Last June, De Soto Sport unveiled a revolutionary new wetsuit to the triathlon world, and the results have been a collective gasp of surprise and universal appeal.

The "T1" wetsuit is actually a two-piece, named not for Arnold Schwarzeneggers most famous android (although you just might feel like The Terminator once you put it on), but rather after the first transition area of a triathlon the "T1" area.

In no time at all, the T1 has developed a reputation as the only wetsuit for the serious athlete. Though the price may prohibit the less dedicated from shelling out $184 for the lower-body "Bibjohn" and an additional $184 for the upper-body "Pullover," I cannot suggest a better investment regardless of your swimming ability or frequency in the water.

Why? Lets start with the obvious reasons.

Two-piece design

The T1 is the first racing wetsuit to come in two pieces. Its odd that no one thought of this concept before, as it seems so obvious and advantageous in retrospect. The Bibjohn, which is akin to a pair of skintight overalls (suspenders included), goes on first, with the suspenders serving to hold the pant-legs up (eliminating any chance of it slipping down with activity).

Note that the suspenders go over the trapezius and not the shoulders, allowing greater range of movement during stroke recovery.

The Pullover comes next, over the upper body, overlapping the Bibjohns suspenders and waistline with a snug fit. The end result is a two-piece suit that ends up virtually seamless in appearance and hydrodynamics.

Since a swimmer is required to rotate their body through the water during the freestyle stroke, it makes perfect sense that a wetsuit in two pieces works better to accommodate this range of motion.

One-piece wetsuits act like a full-body rubber band, pulling ones limbs back toward the center of the body. As a result, the swimmer has to strain and encounter resistance to complete each stroke. This results in that claustrophobic "straightjacket" feeling some people complain about, with fatigue and frustration soon following.

Conversely, the T1 allows the upper body a mobility that is separate from the lower body. As you pivot in the water with each stroke, stretching out your arms fully and pulling them all the way back beyond your waist, you never have to fight against the rubber, which softly goes wherever you do.

No zipper

Because of the T1s unique two-piece approach, the need for a zipper along the spine is eliminated. This has several obvious advantages.

First, there is no zipper to gouge the back of your neck with each stroke or head rotation. Also, the absence of a zipper means no high necklines (think of going from a turtleneck to a T-shirt). This crew-neck feature is not only more comfortable, but allows for greater range of motion during the breathing and sighting portion of the stroke swimmers who previously felt mummified in their wetsuits will feel liberated.

No zipper also means a lighter wetsuit which means a more buoyant wetsuit. Finally, this zipper-less approach allows for one less "seam" to interrupt the smooth lines of your hydrodynamic "second skin."

Pliability and buoyancy

The T1 makers have taken care to select not only the highest-quality rubber, but also to provide varying thickness throughout the suit. This wisely maximizes buoyancy without sacrificing flexibility. With 2mm-thick rubber on the Pullover, and a combination of 5mm and 3mm rubber on the Bibjohn, the T1 allows your upper body to move freely and easily (even in the full-length sleeves) while giving your legs excellent buoyancy.

Triathletes whose muscular legs sink during swimming can now rely more heavily on the flotation-friendly lower-body advantages of the T1. Other swimmers who depend on a rapid turnover and fluid shoulder rotation will find the T1 Pullover non-restrictive and pliable enough to even swim butterfly or backstroke (not that you would in an open-water swim but you could).

The gospel of the popular Total Immersion clinics dictates that a swimmer must feel like he or she is "swimming downhill," with high hips in the water. The T1 ensures this body position by elevating the legs and hips, cantilevering the body into just such a "downhill" position that is ideal for racing.

Warmth

One would think that a wetsuit that only provides 2mm of thickness in the chest area would not be a product to try in most open waters outside the Caribbean. However, the T1 is supremely warm, and this is coming from a tough customer who cringes at the thought of swimming in sub-60 degree waters.

I took the T1 for a test-swim twice last month, on both occasions venturing into the chilly Pacific (which boasted a confirmed temperature reading of 52 and 58 degrees, respectively).

Both times, after overcoming the inevitable ice cream headache and foot-numbing shock, I found that the suit was keeping me toasty and warm, even more so than my old 5mm-thick suit (which often allowed cold water to seep in through the neckline).

The T1, as snug as it is, rarely lets cooling amounts of water flow into the suit, even with rigorous activity. This makes a big difference in ones attempt to stay warm.

Proper fit

Unlike all the other one-piece wetsuits on the market, the T1 comes in two pieces, which means it is a lot easier to choose a "perfect fit." Previously, swimmers were stuck using the same-size wetsuit as their triathlete counterparts yet swimmers and triathletes generally have different bodies (swimmers are defined in the chest and back while triathletes tend to be leaner with muscular legs).

Now, one can choose the size that fits for each part of their body without being stuck in a suit that only fits "half-right."

Likewise, the 12 available sizes of the Bibjohn and Pullover provide an infinite number of combinations for male and female swimmers, who can match upper and lower suit segments to their own unique body shapes.

Fitness swimmers who achieve their weight loss goals will find they wont have to repurchase an entirely new wetsuit the following season, but rather replace only the half of the suit where their weight-loss is evident.

Durability

Even the highest-quality rubber is bound to tear, crack, or split over time but the T1 promises improved durability for the simple fact that it does not sport a zipper. The only mechanical component to any wetsuit, the zipper is usually the only part requiring repairs. A more likely scenario is that the zipper will break over time or become separated from its seam, requiring the purchase of a new wetsuit.

The T1, since it comes in two parts, means that there is no zipper to ruin either half of the suit. And, should the rubber split, crack, or tear, at worst case you need only to replace the half of the suit thats damaged if the suit is irreparable.

A few things that are important to note if you are considering a purchase of the T1:

  • Putting on the wetsuit properly takes a little getting used to. One trick for the Bibjohn is to put plastic bags on your feet and slip them through the pantlegs one at a time. The bags provide smooth entry and prevent any sharp toes from getting caught inside the suit. The same goes for your hands as you slip them through the sleeves of the pullover; plastic bags simplify the process. Once your hands are all the way through, pull your head through the opening in the neck area and then worm your way up so that the wetsuits torso smoothes out across your chest and stomach.

  • The sensation of wearing a two-piece wetsuit is a lot different than what you may be used to in a one-piece. Since the two parts are separate, it will feel like the Pullover is slowly creeping up toward your neck as you begin swimming. This is because, unlike the one-piece, the pullover is not attached to the crotch area. Relax; the pullover is not riding up your body; it is simply twisting and turning with your torso (thats what non-restrictive movement feels like, so get used to it and enjoy the benefits!).

  • Removal of the suit is a little different for those of you triathletes who may be concerned with transition-area efficiency. The pullover can be pulled over the head (much like a sweater) and comes off quickly. The Bibjohn should be pulled down around the ankles, inside out for efficient removal. As the suit stretches and conforms to your body, it will be easier to put on and take off, but it will take a few tries for you to be completely comfortable and efficient.

    De Soto offers a full refund within 14 days of purchase if you arent satisfied with the T1. There is also a one-year warranty against defects and workmanship and an additional perk for older wetsuits that are damaged or worn (after the one-year warranty is up): De Soto will offer a repair at a reasonable charge using their own original materials and skilled laborers.

    For the athlete who may not want to spend the money on the T1, De Soto offers an offshoot wetsuit called the Dos (pronounced "dose," like the Spanish for "two") for 2002 at a more affordable price. While admittedly not as buoyant as the T1, the Dos still uses a fine-quality rubber and the same design characteristics as its hydrodynamic counterpart.

    Extensive lab tests are still pending, but De Soto claims that the Dos has consistently performed "as fast" as the T1. The only drawback is that it is more difficult to remove out of the water (which may only be a drawback to the competitive triathlete, and not the average fitness swimmer or weekend warrior).

    My own accolades aside, perhaps most telling of all in the product-testimony department is the De Soto company itself. So confident they are in their fast-selling product that they have not bothered to change the 2001 inaugural model for the 2002 season.

    Why mess with perfection?

    The T1 wetsuit is available at www.desotosport.com. For a free catalogue and additional information, please call (800) 453-6783.


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