Barely dressed for success

Could be hip or could be science, but those Speedos catch the eye

Athens Olympics

The lowdown on Michael Phelps

August 20, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Four gold medals and two bronze. Records set, records broken. A marvel in the water. It's no wonder Michael Phelps is the talk around the water cooler.

Except swimming's not the only thing folks are talking about.

Since Phelps began wowing the world from Athens, one important question about him has dominated the Olympic gossip-mill.

Why on Earth does his swim suit ride so danged low?


You know you've noticed it. In newspaper and magazine photographs and on television screens, the out-of-water Phelps has given new meaning to the term low tide.

Some front-on views have clearly exposed an Olympics ring tattoo on his hip or an eyeful of Ken-doll-like ridges - Phelps' ultra-defined pelvic muscles - in a peekaboo fashion that alternately tantalizes and scandalizes.

Other side shots of the swimmer have been undeniably ... uh ... cheeky.

Everyone, it seems, has a theory.

Is this Speedo's doing? A new twist on product placement?

Doubtful, say the folks at Fluent Inc., who helped the Speedo company develop the science behind Phelps' and other swimmers' high-tech legskin.

"I don't know what it is," said Paul Bemis, vice president of marketing at Fluent. "But I doubt it has anything to do with Speedo."

Could it be just a sign of the low-slung times we live in, and of Phelps' trendy hip-hop tendencies? After all, he does drive a Cadillac Escalade on spinners. Is it that far of a leap that he'd prefer to wear his pants or shorts or swim suit the way his favorite rappers do - well below the belt, with boxers in plain view? Well, minus the boxers?

"A lot of the styles they're making for the younger guys are the low-rise styles, so it might be just that he's 19 years old and that's how he's used to wearing his pants," said Jessica Clark, a sales associate at Water Water Everywhere, a swimsuit shop in Columbia.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, Clark wants it known.

"He can definitely wear it that way, so let him wear it," she said. "I don't mind."

Won't stay up

Or maybe Phelps' jammers just won't stay up on his skinny little waist, some have surmised. He has been seen on television interviews yanking them up in the back, as if he forgot his suspenders at home.

Like most accomplished swimmers, Phelps is awfully slender, with next to no body fat, which makes the poolside-flashing more acceptable to some. After all, it's not like we're talking about an Olympic Sumo wrestler showing it off plumber-style.

"It's not vulgar or anything," said Jeff Lunnen, a swim instructor at Knight Diver Aquatic Club in Edgewood. "I don't think he really cares. He just looks so comfortable."

That may be a key factor, some sportswear manufacturers said.

"From [the athlete's] point of view, the No. 1 for wearing anything is for comfort," said Diane Shiviskis-McCaffrey, director of men's and women's apparel for Fila. "No matter what sport they participate in. If it's short-distance running, they want muscle-protection fabric. They want it to be snugger, made with Lycra and stretchability. If it's long-distance running, they want something that's cool and comfortable and that will wick the moisture away from their body."

Swimmers, too, need to be comfortable - one reason why many prefer not to wear the Ian Thorpe-favored full-body swimsuit, which some say restricts under the arms.

But more than comfort, obviously, Olympic swimmers want to be fast.

One enemy to quickness in the water is the evil known as "drag" - a force that slows down swimmers' forward momentum, causing them to expend more energy and lose speed. Just about everything a swimmer wears - or doesn't wear - is related to thwarting the slowing powers of drag.

Which brings us back to Michael Phelps and his sliding Speedos.

Could Phelps' hip flexors- and buttocks-baring way of wearing his swimsuit actually be a clever drag-reducing technique?

It's possible, said David Pendergast, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Pendergast and a colleague, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor John Mollendorf, have developed a new drag-reducing technology in swimwear involving a complicated hydrodynamic device called a turbulator. The turbulator, in oversimplified terms, is a circular tube strategically placed on a swimsuit. The tube introduces a raised ridge that alters the flow of water around the body and decreases drag.

The turbulator

According to Pendergast, the waistband around Phelps' jammers could actually be serving as a makeshift turbulator.

Who knew?

"One thing about the way Michael Phelps wears his suit, it may actually be in the right place on his buttocks to serve as a turbulator," he said. "So actually wearing his suit where he does may actually serve to his advantage."

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