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Glenn Stout

The swimsuit’s role in creating champions

By Glenn Stout
August 4, 2009

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IS IT THE suit, or the swimmer?

This is the question that is being asked of Michael Phelps and other world-class swimmers today. Precisely how much of their speed in the water is due to their own innate abilities as opposed to the more streamlined swimsuits currently in vogue is a question that vexes the swimming community. After all, Phelps seemed once invincible in his Speedo LZR, last year’s hot swim racing fashion. But all of a sudden German swimmer Paul Biedermann, in his new, high-tech Arena X-Glide suit, has left Phelps behind.

The ethics of these uber suits is currently the only topic of debate in the swimming world. But, unlike the suits, the debate is not brand new. In fact, in 1926 when Trudy Ederle became the first woman, and only sixth person, to swim the English Channel, beating the existing men’s record by nearly two hours, her success was due, in part, to her innovative swimsuit.

The first swimmers wore nothing, and this was more or less the norm until the 19th century when English men’s swimming clubs began holding competitions that sometimes included female spectators. As a result, to protect the virtue of these spectators, male swimmers wore one-piece singlets, usually made of wool or flannel, and later of silk. These “unitards’’ originally stretched from the ankle to the wrist but evolved over time to expose most of the legs and arms.

It was different for women. Repressive morality forced women to wear cumbersome swimming skirts or gowns with bloomers and stockings that covered nearly the entire body and made the act of swimming nearly impossible. Not until the Women’s Swimming Association was created in New York in 1917 and began sponsoring women’s swimming meets did it become acceptable for female athletes to abandon these skirts and wear less-restrictive unitards that began above the knee and left the arms completely exposed.

Ederle wore such a suit in 1925 when she first tried and failed to swim the English Channel. During the journey, which ended halfway across due to both bad weather and the ill effects of something she had consumed, her suit had proven to be problematic. The woolen singlet had caused significant chafing around her arms and over the course of her swim had lost its shape. The neckline had gaped open like the mouth of a basking shark, creating considerable drag as she swam through the water using the American crawl.

As she trained in France for a second attempt during the summer of 1926, Ederle and her sister Meg began experimenting with Ederle’s suit. This time it was made of silk, which helped with the chafing, but during training Ederle discovered that the scoop neck still slowed her down.

So the two took matters into their own hands. They removed a skirt from the original suit and, with additional material Meg bought in Paris, fashioned a two-piece suit consisting of a brassiere that opened and closed in the front, and a bottom, akin to a pair of tight-fitting briefs.

The result worked beautifully. The two-piece suit gave her more freedom of movement. The tight-fitting top caused comparatively little drag, did not chafe her skin, and the clasps on the brassiere even allowed Ederle to make adjustments in the event the material stretched.

Although they did not realize it, some two decades before Louis Reard and Jacques Heim received credit for inventing the bikini, the Ederle sisters already had. Unfortunately, neither sister realized they had created not only something brand new but something with much commercial potential. They never thought to trademark or patent the design and lost the opportunity to earn millions of dollars.

No matter. On Aug. 6, 1926 Ederle entered the English Channel on the French shore and emerged 14 hours and 31 minutes later at Kingsdown Beach in England, the first woman to conquer the Channel, evidence of success for both the suit and the swimmer. Although she may have missed out on a fortune on her swimsuit, she still won something far more important: the right for women everywhere to compete as athletes.

Glenn Stout is the author of “Young Woman and the Sea: How Trudy Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Inspired the World,’’ published last week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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