Swimming 101: Equipment

Swimming 101: Equipment
Posted at 4:24 PM, Mar 13, 2020


Up until the 1996 Atlanta Games, swimmers typically wore suits that covered as little of their skin as necessary. Shaving one's entire body was the primary way to enhance speed through the water. Since then, advancements by manufacturers have created a wholesale change in the look of an Olympic swimmer. Atlanta marked the beginning of the "bodysuit revolution." At those Games, neck-to-knee swimsuits made their Olympic debut, with Speedo's model, the Aquablade, worn by several medal winners. Prior to the 2000 Sydney Games, when swimmers began wearing suits that covered all parts of their body except their feet, hands and head, some observers felt the suits were performance-enhancing, and thus against the rules. But FINA, swimming's governing body, declined to ban the suits and as a result, most competitors in Sydney wore some variation of the bodysuit. Most gold medalists at the 2004 Games wore Speedo's Fastskin suit. 

For the Beijing Games, Speedo introduced the LZR Racer suit, which was touted as the world's fastest swimsuit. Made from a compressive, water-repellent and chlorine-resistant fabric, it was said to reduce drag and provide the most streamlined shape. A corset-like core stabilizer was intended to support and hold the swimmer in order to maintain the best body position in the water for longer. The suit's seams were ultrasonically welded together to eliminate stitching. The effect was a futuristic look and feel. Swim brand Arena also unveiled a new suit, the R-Evolution, with similar claims about its effects. As with shaving the entire body, some experts contend that a bodysuit's benefit is more psychological than physical. 

After Beijing, several other full-body suits hit the market. Two of them, Arena's X-Glide and a suit manufactured by Jaked,  drastically improved buoyancy in the water by using polyurethane panels. As a result of all the high-tech suits available, 43 world records were broken at the 2009 World Championships. USA Swimming's National Team director at the time, Mark Schubert, told the Washington Post that the meet "will be remembered as the plastic meet."

Two swimmers wearing since-banned body suits prepare to start a race a the 2009 Fina World Championships
Nathan Adrian was among the many swimmers wearing a variant of the since-banned full-body suit at the 2009 FINA World Championships
Mitchell Gunn-USA TODAY Sports

FINA decided to ban high-tech suits effective Jan. 1, 2010. The new rules call for textile-only fabric. Men's suits can only extend from the waist to the knees (called jammers), and women's suits are limited from the shoulders to the knees. All suits must be inspected by FINA prior to each competition, and each one must have a tag on the back that signifies FINA's approval. 


Virtually all swimmers wear goggles in practice and races. Goggles serve to protect swimmers' eyes from the effects of chlorine and allow them to see the walls clearly. In the past, swimmers used saliva or wiped a cigarette on the inside of their goggles to prevent them from fogging up mid-race. Today's goggles are fogless, fit better and even come with polarized lenses to cut down on outdoor glare. This innovation is particularly helpful to backstrokers, who used to go "sun blind" swimming outdoors. The pool competition venue in Tokyo is indoors. The 10k open water event, as always, is outdoors. 


Latex or lycra head coverings called swim caps are used during a workout mainly to protect a swimmer's hair from the effects of chlorine. During a race, the cap serves to eliminate drag from a swimmer's hair and reduce water resistance. In the Olympics, swimmers may only wear swim caps with markings representing their country. Some swimmers choose to shave their heads in lieu of wearing a swim cap. Swimmers may even wear more than one cap, because of the drag from their goggle straps. 

Swimming Pool

A birds-eye view of the swimming pool inside the new Tokyo Aquatics Center.
The swimming pool inside the brand new Tokyo Aquatics Center is standard Olympic size and features an adjustable floor.
Atsushi Tomura

An Olympic pool has 10 lanes, with the outside two lanes always left empty. Lanes are 50 meters (164 feet) long from wall to wall. They measure 2.5 meters (8’2”) wide. An Olympic pool must be at least 2 meters (6’7”) deep, and measure 25 meters (82 feet) across. 

Lane lines 
Lane lines do more than just separate swimmers. Plastic anti-wave ropes prevent backwash from one lane into the next and reduce wake spreading across the pool. 

Controlling turbulence 
Modern Olympic pools are designed to enhance the speed of competition. Among the ways that is achieved is minimizing turbulence, which impedes a swimmer's progress through the water. Water returns on each side of the pool reduce reflected wave patterns. In addition, maintaining a minimum water depth of 2m keeps reflective turbulence from reverberating off the bottom of the pool. 

Cold conditions prevent fast swimming. FINA's Olympic standard for water temperature is 25 to 28 degrees Celsius (77 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit). 

Water quality 
Clean, clear water assists visibility and makes swimmers feel more comfortable. The pool is treated with ozone to reduce the distractions of taste, smell and possibly stinging eyes caused by chlorine. 

Starting block 
The structure off which swimmers dive at the beginning of a race or relay leg (excluding backstroke) is designed to encourage fast starts. Though rules mandate that platforms be solid and do not provide spring, they are angled to the pool and made with rubber to reduce slippage. Also, handrails allow for an added push. The surface area must be at least 0.5 meters wide by 0.6 meters long. The platform can have an adjustable back plate or "wedge," which allows swimmers to more easily push off with their feet.