Ironman, wary of speedskins, place pros on notice

Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Fri Oct 05 2007

WTC's head of commissaires Jim Riccitello is uneasy about the new speedskins popping up at his non-wetsuit-legal Ironman races. While acknowledging they are nowhere near as fast as wetsuits, he swam in them himself during his own evaluation and says, "They are buoyant, you can feel the buoyancy when you swim."

Last year's Hawaiian Ironman winner Normann Stadler and perennial women's winner Natascha Badmann are both expected to swim in Blue Seventy's speedskin, and last year's women's champ Michellie Jones will probably toe the line in 2XU's version. Speedskin-wearing Stadler raised eyebrows last year when he exited the water much closer to German rival Faris Al Sultan. Some professionals in Kona credited Stadler's choice of swimwear with granting him his winning margin over Australia's Chris McCormack.

This year, expect most of the pro athletes to wear a speedskin. Why is this so, when swimming's stars don't enjoy an obvious advantage and often race without them in the pool? Because triathletes wear skins that have never been deemed legal to use in a swim meet. While these suits haven't raised the eyebrow's of those at USA Triathlon, they make WTC's Riccitello nervous.

Triathlon's test for legality is to place 61 grams of weight on a suit, wrung free of air, and placed a foot or two under the water's surface. If the suit sinks it's legal, otherwise it's not. Riccitello is unconvinced that this protocol is foolproof. His tests on suits differs, in some cases, with results from tests on the same suits tested the same way by USAT.

"If it was up to me we would accede to FINA's judgment on swimwear," Riccitellos said. "But USAT disagrees with me." FINA is the internation federation for swimmming. He acknowledged that WTC is trying to defer to USAT's rulebook as much as it can, asking for a variance from the rules only when WTC feels such a departure is critical. Typically, such variances have been sought on rules that govern position violations on the bike course. Almost never does WTC differ from USAT on equipment, though it put its foot down last year when USAT said it would not allow helmets certified under Europe's safety standard. Now Ironman races will honor helmets certified in that athlete's home country.

WTC sent a letter earlier this week to its pro athletes attending the Ironman, saying all speedskins must be approved by FINA or by USAT's head of officials Charlie Crawford. The letter went on to read, "Ironman reserves the right to perform buoyancy tests on suits after the swim portion of the race... swim wear not passing the buoyancy test cannot be appealed."

One manufacturer of speedskins contacted Slowtwitch.com earlier in the week, shaken by the letter from WTC and worried that its product might cause the disqualification of star athletes who use the product. But Riccitello said these companies have nothing to worry about if USAT's Crawford has okayed the product. Riccitello's bigger concern is nonconforming speedskins -- cheater suits -- apparel that appears like that submitted for testing to USAT but made with different material for use by certain pro swimmers. "I don't have the time, pre-race," to check everyone's swimwear," said Riccitello. "I won't be able to tell who's got a suit that differs from that submitted to Charlie. So we may test some suits after the swim."

Riccitello said that he sought USAT's agreement earlier in the year to limit such suits to those approved by FINA, and USAT resisted. But Crawford acknowledged more recently, says Riccitello, that WTC was free to do so for its races, such acknowledgement coming too late, according to Riccitello, to disallow the suits' use in Kona.

Riccitello's posture suggests this may be the one and only year these suits are allowable in the Hawaiian Ironman, though there is no suggestion USAT will adopt FINA's more stringent standard for non-Ironman races.