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Sep. 7, 2007

Rick Sharp

Rick Sharp helped design Speedo's record-breaking swimsuit, just in time for the 2008 Olympics. Photo by Bob Elbert

The science of speed

by Mike Ferlazzo, News Service

Rick Sharp is a former competitive swimmer and still swims daily. So the professor of exercise physiology in the kinesiology department is getting great satisfaction from being part of a design team that created Speedo's new Fastskin FS-Pro swimsuit. The technology is credited with helping world-class swimmers break dozens of national and international records in the six months since its release.

In February, Michael Phelps wore the suit for the first time and set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly, even though he hadn't shaved for the meet. Another American, Kate Ziegler, tried out the suit in June and broke swimming's oldest record - the 1988 mark set by Janet Evans in the 1,500-meter freestyle - by almost 10 seconds.

Expect Speedo's recent design to be all the rage at next summer's Beijing Olympic Games.

Speedo comes calling

The director of ISU's kinesiology laboratories, Sharp first was contacted about two years ago by Speedo officials to assist in the design and evaluation of the new suit.

"They contacted me because I had done some research over the last 10 years on suit design and swimming performance," said Sharp, who serves as physiology consultant to Speedo International and participates in numerous swimming coach education programs in the United States and abroad.

"It actually started with a study we did on whether shaving down - or tapering - made a measurable physical improvement in performance," he said. "I also did a study on the early version of the whole body suits to see if there was a similar effect in performance with those.

"That's how Speedo knew me and they came up with the idea of helping to design a suit that might work as intended."

What is Fastskin?

The Fastskin FS-Pro swimsuit features a new, water-repellent fabric made by weaving a combination of spandex and nylon yarn. The fabric feels like a windbreaker when dry and is patented and dubbed LZR Pulse. It weighs 70 percent less than other swimsuits, but has 15 percent better compression - an important feature to maintaining the pace of world-class swimmers. It retains almost no water and needs only 45 minutes to dry after being in water.

Sharp said that Speedo officials already had identified the fabric with the right low-drag characteristics by the time they contacted him. But they had to fit that fabric into a design, which is where he came in.

"Once they put together prototypes, they had several testing sites around the world for different aspects of the testing," he said. "We'd collect all the information from the testing and feed that back to the group as a whole and come up with ideas for the next prototype - what we would tighten up, loosen up, etc.

"That was my chief role as a physiologist - to assess the energy cost in a specific design. I looked for something that would lower the energy cost as much as possible, and yet maintain these race paces that they have to keep in competition."

Shaping the swimsuit

Sharp analyzed the physiological data from tests all over the world and made suggestions on improving performance.

"My perspective is that you have a nice fabric - a low-drag fabric that is as slippery as possible - but you need to shape the body and prevent the skin from flapping around in the water, since that creates a lot of drag," he said. "We wanted to make something super tight and hold everything in - something that wouldn't restrict breathing or movement - that would allow real freedom at the same time. So the question became, 'How tight can we afford to get the suit before restricting motion or breathing?'"

The design team used data gained from body scanning hundreds of international swimmers to successfully answer that question and devise the groundbreaking suit. According to Sharp, the suit is being marketed specifically for competitive swimmers, as well as Master swimmers "who also want to go fast."

Sharp hasn't worn one of the new suits when he swims. He doesn't even have one in his Forker Building office. But he doesn't care if he ever gets to try it on. He gets plenty of satisfaction from just seeing it work.


Swimsuit design isn't Rick Sharp's only research focusing on athletic performance. He also continues his work on hydration. Previous studies showed that those who ate chicken noodle soup 45 minutes before exercise had better fluid balance during their workouts than those who consumed a sport drink or water prior to exercise. He currently is studying the chicken soup effect on competitive cyclists.