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High-tech swimsuit

November 27, 2001

A public radio commentary

How much does it cost to design a swimsuit? In at least one case, the answer is about a million dollars, and about three years of work. I'm talking about the Fastskin swimsuit, developed by Speedo, and worn by most swimmers in the recent Olympics.

This Fastskin suit is revolutionary: It helps a swimmer to shave about three percent off their performance time. Now, this may not sound like much, but when we're talking about world class athletes it can determine whether he or she wins a medal. To give you an idea: Thirty-one of thirty-two Olympic finals involved less than a three percent difference between first and sixth place.

What's the secret to this new swimsuit? Nature. Although it's inventor, Fiona Fairhurst, started by looking at human-made things. Fairhurst, a former competitive swimmer, and now an expert in textiles, studied race cars for to see how they reduced drag from the wind. Next, she took up SCUBA diving to understand buoyancy. Then came a critical day in 1997 when she visited a group of military designers.

"I spotted a stuffed penguin," she says, "and they told me how they were trying to develop a flak jacket using principles of penguins' feathers. So I started thinking about what moves fast generally."

This led her to Cheetahs, and then dolphins. Finally, an expert at London's Natural History Museum convinced her that Sharks should be her model.

He told her how sharks create turbulence in the water like humans. They are very fast, but not naturally hydrodynamic. It's their skin that minimizes drag and helps them swim efficiency. A shark's skin has tiny triangular projections that point backwards. They decrease drag and turbulence by making water spiral off the shark's body.

So, Fairhurst magnified the skin of a shark and asked manufacturers to copy it. They made her fabric with ridges with the same proportions as on a shark. To get the right material took three years, 450 different types of fabric and 10 prototype swimsuits, each costing $25,000. So advanced is this new swimsuit that Fiona Fairhurst has been given the nickname "Q", after the character in the James Bond films who develops all the gadgets.

Now that she's the Queen of High Tech Swimsuits, what next? Rumor has it, she's looking into swimsuits that are sprayed on.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises