PACIFICA, Calif. — Some swimmers at a meet here this year stood atop the racing blocks in high-tech, shoulder-to-knee suits like those worn by Olympians. The suits, which can cost as much as $500, are believed to increase speed by 1 to 2 percent for mature athletes.
Fashioned to prevent drag in the water, the suits are creating a lot of friction on pool decks wherever two or more age-groupers are gathered. The proliferation of expensive gear with dubious advantages has created anxiety over the future of the sport, raising questions about elitism and whether the youngest participants are being taught that success can be bought.
The suits have pitted parents who have the financial wherewithal and unswerving determination to give their children every competitive edge against other adults involved in the sport who fervently believe that the focus for preteens should be on fun and skill development, not performance.
“Right now the high-tech suits in age-group swimming are a parental arms race,” said Matt Farrell, the chief marketing officer of USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body.
USA Swimming’s board of directors is scheduled to vote Saturday on a proposal to forbid the use of tech suits by athletes younger than 13, except at high-level meets. A handful of regional swimming committees, led by the one in Southern California, have already imposed restrictions on the suits. If the USA Swimming measure passes Saturday, the organization’s house of delegates will vote on final approval in September.
High-tech suits — or tech suits, as they are often called — are distinguished by woven, rather than knitted, fabric, bonded seams and water-repellent coating. They are designed to make bodies more compact so they glide atop the water like sleek hulls.
For girls, they are much longer than traditional suits, which typically do not cover the thighs. Boys’ models, known as jammers, cover the lower torso and upper legs. In many cases, the differences between a tech suit and a less sophisticated model can be difficult to discern at a glance, which may complicate enforcement of any restrictions. It could come down to identifying a sewn seam versus a bonded or taped one.
The earliest tech suits appeared 10 years ago, before the Beijing Olympics, and included full-body models with zippers and polyurethane panels. They were soon scaled down.
Many coaches see any type of tech suit as pointless or counterproductive for young swimmers because their bodies rarely have enough bulk to benefit from the compression effects and their stroke mechanics may not be sound enough to take advantage of the tech suits’ streamlining. They also worry that the suits will overemphasize pressure to succeed and contribute to burnout for certain children.
A few coaches in unregulated regions have dared to independently establish restrictions on the pricey suits, which usually start at $100 — roughly twice the cost of regular racing suits.
The Denver Swim Academy allows them to be worn only at specific meets or at the coach’s discretion. Its website explains the reasoning behind the limits, which is basically a desire to save families the expense of a suit that for most young swimmers will work purely as a “psychological security blanket.”
Mark Taliaferro, who coaches the 10-and-unders at the Santa Clara Swim Club, has banned the suits because he believes they can be seen as easy substitutes for diligent practice and proper stroke technique. But enforcement is not easy. Taliaferro’s swimmers have been known to wear the tech suits at meets not on the team schedule, where he is not in attendance.
“It’s tough because if you say no, they can go elsewhere where they’ll be able to wear the suits,” said Maryanne Graham-Keever, the head age-group coach at Arizona’s Scottsdale Aquatic Club, which does not restrict their use.
Coaches also describe feeling pressured to allow the suits because the board members who sign their paychecks want their children to be able to race in one.
And there are inconsistencies within clubs. When swimmers advance from Taliaferro’s group to the next level at Santa Clara, he said, they train under a coach who expects them to wear tech suits.
Seeking to clear up confusion about the tech suits’ place in the age-group arena, USA Swimming commissioned a study of the suits last summer by Stu Isaac, a consultant who spent 25 years in marketing and promotions for the swimwear company Speedo. After attending several meets and canvassing parents, coaches, swimmers and swimwear manufacturers, Isaac delivered a 57-page report in March that shaped the policy under consideration this weekend.
The parents and coaches who spoke to Isaac offered differing opinions but were unified in their desire, he wrote, for USA Swimming to “protect them from themselves.”
One anecdote from a coach particularly stuck with Isaac. “A parent asked him if he should buy his daughter a $500 suit,” Isaac said, “and the coach replied, ‘Your daughter would be a lot better off if you’d just get her to practice on time.'”
Isaac unearthed no evidence to support widely held assumptions that the suits’ costs were hurting participation by making the sport inaccessible to less affluent families. He collected anecdotal evidence that families were sharing tech suits and buying used ones.
But, Isaac said, parents are bound to be bewildered when shopping for the best value in a suit. During his research, he counted 90 versions of women’s swimwear that covered the torso from the neck to the knees.
“If you’re a parent and you don’t know the differences,” Isaac said recently, “you’re going to say the most expensive suit must be the best.”
Parents also default to the brand worn by their child’s favorite swimmer.
“I’ve talked to moms of young kids who want to buy a supersuit,” said Tony Batis, the head coach of Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics in California, “and their only logic is, ‘We saw Katie Ledecky wear it or Missy Franklin wear it, so we want our daughter to wear the same thing.'”
The baggy suit worn by Yein Tahk, the 8-year-old girl at the California meet, retails for $200, roughly twice the monthly training dues for members of her novice group at Sunnyvale Swim Club.
Bob Hill, the team’s head coach, said he advises his families to save their money. He strives to educate his families about the suits by emphasizing the longer view.
“It’s not a magic suit that gets them their goals,” he said, adding, “We want our younger athletes to trust in themselves and their training.”
Yein’s father, Shin Je Tahk, said he had bought the tech suit online for his older daughter, Yelin, who was 12 at the time. When the suit arrived, it was too snug for Yelin, which can happen since the sizing of the suits varies from brand to brand. So Tahk gave that one to his younger daughter and ordered a different size for Yelin, now 13, who said she felt pressured to own a high-tech suit because “everybody was wearing one.”
Before turning 13, Yelin Tahk recorded times in several events that ranked her among the top 10 in the country for 11- and 12-year-old girls. She wears a tech suit only at bigger meets, she said, and she has noticed that her turns are better when she wears one because she comes off the walls more streamlined. But she suspects that the main benefit is psychological.
“If you feel like it will help you to do better, then you probably will,” she said, but added, “When I’m wearing a regular suit and I can beat girls that are wearing $200 tech suits, it makes me realize that swimming fast is really about talent.”
She is not alone.
Grace Hanson, a 14-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, said that a scene from the movie “Spider-Man: Homecoming” captured the essence of the debate in swimming.
“One of the other superheroes took Spider-Man’s suit,” she recalled, “and said, ‘If you can’t do it without the suit, you don’t deserve it.'”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.