Building sand castles with my two small boys on a beautiful beach in the Algarve last week provided a constant reminder of the event that looms large in the swimming world. No, not Beijing, but Omaha. Just as the ebb and flow of the Atlantic swept away the shifting sands of our toil and demanded reconstruction, so too will the US Olympic trials set the tone for a new age of swimming. What once was will soon be no more.
Some suggest that (and I quote) 'massive progress in coaching'; is responsible for the massive progress seen in the water of late. Without wishing to play down any progress in the coaching world, I beg to differ. Two elements in particular account for the time-warp we have witnessed since March 2007 and more so since February 2008: the first wave belonged to the fifth stroke - underwater dolphin kicking of a level never seen before - and the second wave washed in on the back of a new generation of bodysuits that are (unquestionably, in at least one case so far) enhancing performance in a way that recalls some of the big technological and administrative milestones in the sport (silk suits, goggles, wave-breakers, level-deck pools, rule changes).
The LZR Racer rolled in like a surfer's dream to most of those who wore it in the early months of the year - and like a Tsunami for those who did not or could not wear it. Here comes the drop. Much is yet to be revealed during eight days of racing at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska, but one thing is clear: the trials will set a new level for High Tide.
The headline-hoggers are led by Baltimore Bullets Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, each with a schedule that even many a world-class coach and swimmer cannot truly fathom. Phelps, a six-time gold medallist at the 2004 Olympic Games (one of those courtesy of a heats appearance in the medley relay) will take on the 100m and 200m freestyle (each with relay prospects), the 200m and 400m medleys, the 200m butterfly - and then the events that will turn the heads of those gunning for gold in specialist events and hoping that Superfish pursues other prey: 100m and 200m backstroke, 100m butterfly and 400m freestyle. Tantalising.
Both Phelps and Hoff will challenge heights achieved in 1972 by two of the biggest figures in swimming history: Mark Spitz (he of the seven golds in seven world records) and Shane Gould (the only swimmer ever to win five individual medals - three of them gold - at the same Games). Hoff may match that feat. Anything close would be amazing. The 19-year-old is entered in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle, both medleys and the 200m backstroke.
She sees multi-tasking as an absolute positive, telling The Baltimore Sun: 'It takes the pressure off me being focused on one chance to win a gold medal. I have tons of chances. It allows me to be a lot more relaxed and take each race one at a time.'
Both Bullets will don the LZR but the Speedo pathfinder will have company by Beijing. Beyond the Arena R-Evolution +, the adidas Powerskin and the TYR Tracer Rise is relative newcomer the Blueseventy Swimskin. Diana, which had its first version of a faster suit rejected by FINA at a time when Speedo was preparing to launch its latest number, has launched the Submarine Shining Arrow. Among those who will wear it are gold-medal hopes from Poland and Ukraine.
All the new suits are being donned with frenetic abandon by swimmers the globe over in a last-ditch attempt to make their minds up before Beijing. Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti called the LZR 'technological doping' but his swimmers will now don that and other suits that boost performance significantly. The sport has been left with one choice: do or die.
Positives and negatives. 'This is the first time in my life that swimming has gotten this much press,' says Speedo-backed Ben Wildman-Tobriner, world champion in the 50m in a time that may struggle to make the Beijing final. 'Unfortunately, it's about a piece of technology rather than a swimmer,' he adds. Swimmers and coaches are understandably reluctant to give too much credit to a suit. Michael Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, laughs at the idea that the high-tech properties of the LZR--a suit he and the Speedo-sponsored Phelps helped develop--could somehow diminish Phelps's quest for eight gold medals in Beijing. 'Michael has worn the suit more than anybody,' says Bowman, ';and he has had more mediocre swims in it than he has had good ones. If it's the suit that sets the world records, he really should have torn up the record books by now'.
Nice try at deflection, Bob, but that kind of easy comment, understandable as it may be, doesn't really wash. Michael in an LZR in heavy training doing a 4:12 400 medley fools no-one. Michael ready to roast will be a different animal, the spectacular blue-moon athlete of his generation, perhaps of all generations so far. The argument is not how fast Michael can go as how much of an input the suit may be having. Events so far this year suggest the assistance lent by a fabric that isn't a fabric at all in the strictest sense is truly significant. No argument. Whatever pans out in Beijing will only be comparable within its own world.
There will be little point trying to compare Popov (RUS) the winner of the 50m and 100m freestyle titles. Even Mark Foster (GBR), in his late 30s, has managed a 21.96 British record this past week in Zagreb. That probably equates to a 22.3-22.4 in the old world. But who knows, What we do know is that the Olympic titles of 1992-2004 (all to Popov and Gary Hall Jr, one shared by fellow American Anthony Ervin) were all around the mark Foster now boasts as his best time, when the Briton's best in competition of that calibre never broke 22.2.
Foster has a right to feel truly delighted with his new personal best. He will also know that the medals in Beijing will go to those capable of breaking 21.50. If anyone were to tell me that in 2004 they would have predicted a podium in 2008 around the 21.4 mark average, I would call them a liar. Foster in 2003, with his silver medal behind Popov at worlds, is not comparable to Foster in 2008. And that has little to do with age. There will be much mention of Foster 'being at his best at 38'. Such comment would fall shy of the truth in the sense that 21.96 today cannot be compared to 22.13 from 2001. On the evidence of times over 50m across the world and the 21.28 of Eamon Sullivan and the 21.38 and close to it of the three sprint musketeers of France suggest that something other than the swimmer is contributing to the new pace of world sprinting.
The following is an extract from an agency report on the issue of the suits today: 'The Speedo LZR Racer is not a miracle suit,' said Speedo Vice President Craig Brommers. 'It has set zero world records'. Nice try Craig. Again - doesn't really wash. If you claim that your suit is the fastest, most efficient suit you've ever made and list stats on just what kind of gains there are to be had, we all assume you're telling the truth. Right? So why the pretense? If you're selling a nugget, best call it gold because it is gold, not because you want people to believe that regardless of the truth.
The suits cost something like US$500-550 a pop. They are the headline of the hour in a global swimwear market estimated at about US$13 billion. In the US, Speedo's market share of performance suits has grown 7% in the year up to June 14, to 61%, most of that gain filtering through in the past could of months. In contrast, TYR's share has slipped 1% to 21%, and the benevolent Nike (which is allowing its sponsored swimmers freedom of choice) is down 9% to 11%, according to SportsOneSource, the market research firm. And that is before the LZR hits the shops open to the public: several million dollars more of trade is promised from October.
The impact of the LZR has even reached stock markets. Shares in Mizuno, which last year ended a licensing deal with Speedo after more than 40 years, fell 2.8% the day after Kosuke Kitajima (JPN) shattered the world 200m breaststroke record. Shares in Asics lost 3.6%. In contrast, shares in Goldwin, which makes and sells Speedo products in Japan, leapt 19%.
The gains in the markets are as real as those in the water - regardless of what you may hear elsewhere. Fear of failure is driving swimmers into the LZR. In Italy, where Alberto Castagnetti, head coach, described the Speedo as 'technological doping', swimmers are to be given a choice. The penalty for choosing to wear anything other than Arena, the Italian federation's sponsor, is a financial one. As Mark Schubert, USA head coach and a man linked to Speedo (and now also dealing with a suit of a different kind after legal action by TYR), put it: 'the gold medal or the money' is where it's at.
Filippo Magnini (ITA), world champion in a time that may not make the final in Beijing, said that in the LZR 'mediocre swimmers suddenly become Martians'. We will see what choice he has made when he lines up in China. In Germany, the federation is holding its team to the letter of its contract with adidas, which has a new-new suit ready in response to LZR developments. Former world record holder Britta Steffen (GER) said the new suit 'seemed to be competitive.' She told the German media: It's given the whole team a lift, the atmosphere is good. Now everyone can concentrate on training again.'
Results at the US Olympic trials may cause that atmosphere to change once more - and not only in Germany. The world of swimming has battened down the hatches in readiness for the heavy weather forecast from the eye of the storm in Omaha. The sands of time are shifting. Hold on tight.