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Swimwear manufacturers have long looked to the sea for inspiration. Speedo’s original Fastskin design, which debuted at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, featured sharkskin-like ridges that were supposed to boost the swimmer’s speed. In February, however, Harvard researchers found that although actual sharkskin was 12 percent faster with denticles than without, the Fastskin’s bumps were too small, rounded, and far apart to have the same effect. In fact, the suit was actually faster inside out.
Michael Phelps and the U.K.’s Rebecca Adlington will be among the swimmers wearing the Fastskin3 at the Olympics next week.
Still, by the time study hit the news, Speedo was four years and 55,000 hours into research and testing the barracuda-based Fastskin3. Scientists at the company’s Aqualab scanned athletes to create a three-dimensional digital avatar. They then tweaked various parts of it, using computational fluid dynamics to calculate how each change affected drag.
“We operated on the principle of minimal gains,” Joe Santry, Aqualab’s research manager, told Reuters. “Rather than getting a huge increase in performance from a single design change, Speedo’s scientists squeezed a few percentage points of improvement from many individual modifications.”
Unlike other suits, which absorb water, the Fastskin3 repels it. Because the lighter weight helps propel the swimmer that much further, the complete outfit produces 16.6 percent less drag than its competition, according to Speedo. Translation: When U.S.A’s Michael Phelps and the U.K.’s Rebecca Adlington pull on the Fastskin3 at the Olympics next week, they’ll have an estimated 0.11 percent potential increase in speed. It’s a small advantage, to be sure, but in a sport where even a thousandth of a second counts, it could spell all the difference between gold and silver.