Does the Speedo Fastskin suit live up to all the hype?

The Speedo Fastskin suit made its debut nearly two years ago, but its real impact was during the Sydney Olympics last summer.

There, everyone who was anyone on the world-class swimming stage was seen wearing one, and commentators and sports fans alike had something to say about the revolutionary new swimwear.

Controversy has surrounded the suit, as former world-record holders have complained that their longstanding records were being broken unfairly by Fastskin users, who benefited from the advantages of the material (it allegedly repels water more effectively than human skin, which provides for less resistance).

Supporters claim the suit is only a necessary and inevitable advance in technology, and that it truly is the swimmer, not the suit, who breaks the records.

Speedo has finally made the Fastskin available to the everyday consumer, and although it comes with a hefty price tag upwards of $100 for the short version and up to $220 for the full-body model, it is already a common presence at triathlons and masters swim meets across the United States.

This past weekend at a local masters competition, I set out to review the Fastskin for myself and find out what all the fuss was about. Equipped with both a pair of male jams (shorts), as well as a unisex short-leg full-body version of the swimsuit, I tried them both with varying degrees of success and satisfaction.

The unisex full-body Fastskin is certainly impressive-looking, and at the very least you will look really, really cool wearing one (regardless of your prowess in the pool). With a small zipper down the back, it is easy to step into, but things get trickier once its time to pull your arms through. Given that the suit is designed to fit like a second skin, it is difficult to pull it up over your shoulders if youre broad-shouldered (most swimmers are) and impossible to zip up unless you have assistance.

Nevertheless, feeling like a sausage entombed in a brand-new casing, I ventured into the pool to see if my swim times would drastically improve from the moment I got wet. For starters, the suit did indeed seem to repel water. It was so snug against my body that I didnt even feel any water during flip turns, when even the tightest racing suits tend to flood through the gap at the small of your back.

However, it was increasingly hard to breathe as the suit felt constricting and claustrophobic around my chest and upper body. I thought maybe the suit needed time to stretch out, or that I needed a few laps to get used to the sensation (similar to wearing a wetsuit). Unfortunately, the longer I swam the tighter it got, as my muscles warmed up and expanded. In addition to this constricting feeling, I began to chafe at the shoulders where the suit dug into my upper arms with each stroke revolution above my head.

To be fair, my build is unusual in that I have a longer torso with broad shoulders and shorter, less-defined-for-my-height legs. As a result, the medium-size unisex suit I tried on could have been the right size from the waist down but too small for my upper body. In any case, for the price tag I would hope that Speedo expands the line to accommodate those of us that dont fit into the S, M, or L categories (Speedo has custom-sewn the suits for individual National Team members).

One terrific thing about the full-body Fastskin is that it acts as a corset of sorts, holding in loose skin and tightening up bodies that may sport a few extra pounds. Even the leanest of athletes have skin folds that reverberate and add resistance during flip turns and propulsive sprinting, and the Fastskin holds it all together in an aerodynamic package. Female and male athletes alike, regardless of their physiological differences, will find the suit advantageous in girdling their bodies for prime, sleek racing.

Jim McConica, last months SWIM magazine cover story and an accomplished masters swimmer in the 50-54 age group, swears by the suit as the reason for his success. Claiming it makes a huge difference, he says the constricting feeling is common but once he steps up on the blocks it poses no problems.

You just have to get used to it during your warm-up, but when you race you dont even feel it," he said. "I swear by it.

Personally, I had better luck with the jams, a version of the Fastskin with a biking-shorts cut (understandably, its strictly a male suit!). The shorts were snug but not uncomfortable, and they felt liberating after wearing the full-body suit as my arms were unencumbered and free to stroke at their full rotation without any resistance. Like the full-body, the jams smoothed out my skin and acted like a sausage casing to provide better aerodynamic performance.

The Fastskin certainly holds major appeal, from the years of research it took to get to market to the flattering contour-stitching that makes even Aunt Myra look like Catwoman (yes, I do come up with these gems on my own).

Since it isnt cheap, you may want to think twice about investing in a racing suit that could end up hampering your arm turnover or breathing capabilities. Unfortunately, the only way to determine whether the Fastskin is right for you is to try it on and see how it feels.

Revolutionary as it may be, some will inevitably find it frustrating and constricting, while others will be delighted. At the very least, now everyone can look like their favorite Olympian.

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