For this first post, where we ‘feel it out’, I am going to go for a subject matter in material innovation that I have a lot of experience with – the swimsuit. Ever since swimming became an olympic sport, there has been a continual evolution in the material that the suit is made out of. The balance that swimsuit manufacturers struggle to find is in a material that provides adequate compression, is flexible so that the athlete has an appropriate range of motion, and that is strong enough to not rip. In 2006 BlueSeventy, a company that had previously specialized in making wetsuits, broke into the competitive swim market with their thinner, flexible, compressing, and everlasting version of the wetsuit. This was awesome – except for the fact that it also provided buoyancy. The significant competitive advantage that swimmers had while wearing that suit became apparent rather quickly. Speedo came out with their version – the Lazer Racer, in 2007 in time for the world championships and for Michael Phelps to break a world record in the 200m free that was previously thought untouchable. In 2009, a ‘better’ version of this suit came out, and at the Rome world championships the swimmers’ cries of happiness due to best times right and left fell silent, as the world was shocked at the complete obliteration of every world record in the books. Works of swimming legends were erased by nobodies, and we finally truly questioned the ethical problem lurking behind this innovation in swimsuit technology.
Immediately following the Rome World Championships of 2009, FINA issued a ruling banning the use of neoprene, the buoyant material. To this day three years later, 25% of the world records that were set in now illegal swimsuits have already been broken. This material innovation encouraged us to shoot for goals that were previously thought unattainable. Our approach to the sport in training, coaching, nutrition, and mentality has changed in an effort to surpass the performances in a now illegal suit. We allowed the suit to make us expect more of ourselves, and without it have found genuine ways to become better. The unpredicted and adverse affect of material innovation in suits has encouraged the swimming community to be more aggressive in innovative human training processes. The application of innovations are unpredictable, but the lessons learned after them is where we grow.