Athletic Swimsuit

AKA: racing swimsuit, racerback, competitive swimsuit

How to say it:  ath-let-ik  swim-soot

Traditional Features: 

Athletic Swimsuit

  • tight-fitting
  • stream-lined silhouette
  • can be a one or two piece
  • made from a performance nylon/elastane fabric
  • usually a racerback style

21st Century Athletic Swimsuit

21st century athletic swimsuits are getting prettier and prettier, but there is no doubt that they are made for swimming, not lounging on the beach taking in the sun. One-piece, tankini and bikini styles are all readily available on the marketplace in a pleasing array of colours and prints to suit even the most discerning swimmer.

Adidas athleta

Adidas, Athleta

Nike Speedo

Nike, Reebok


…of the style: Women have been participating in competitive swimming since at least 1912, when they first competed in the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Public decency was a big issue for the early competitive swimmers, and men and women both wore body-covering costumes in competition. The women’s outfit was a mid-thigh length, short-sleeved suit made from silk, with a bra and bikini-style brief underneath incase the silk became see-through. These suits created a lot of drag in the water and were not at all easy to swim effectively in.

In 1928, the swimwear company Speedo introduced the racerback silk swimsuit that uncovered the shoulder blades, allowing for better movement of the arms. The suit was quite scandalous at the time and nearly resulted in the disqualification of Clare Dennis at the 1932 Olympics. However, by 1936, the racerback had become an accepted style of women’s competitive swimwear.

It wasn’t until 1956 that nylon began to be used in competitive swimwear and the swimsuits we are so familiar with today began to evolve. First introduced by Speedo, this game changing fabric allowed for a snugger fit and less water resistance in competition; advantages that were further enhanced by the addition of elastane to the fabric in the 1970s. In the 1972 Olympics, 21 out of the 22 Olympic records broken for swimming were done by competitors wearing nylon/elastane suits. By this time, women’s swimsuits closely resembled the athletic swimsuits as we know them; gone were the mid-thigh, sleeved suits, replaced by tight-fitting racerback styles that left the arms and legs free to perform in the water.

Modern competitive swimwear has transformed significantly in the 21st century. In 2000 Speedo launched the Fastskin suit – a full-body suit made from fabric that mimicked shark skin to reduce water resistance, and compressed or released various parts of the body to produce a greater efficiency in the water. These technological advances were followed by the introduction of non-textile swimsuits in 2008. Polyurethane suits built on the advantages of the Fastskin suits by allowing for better oxygen flow to the muscles, whilst holding the body in a more hydrodynamic position, repelling water and increasing flexibility. As well as this, the seams of the suit were ultrasonically welded to further reduce drag.

The suit was called the LZR Racer and was accepted by FINA (International Swimming Federation) for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but they reversed the decision in 2009, ruling that from 2010, women’s competitive swimsuits could only cover the body from shoulder to knee (no sleeves) and must be made from a woven textile with no fastenings or zippers. Similar rules were also made for the men. These changes were introduced in response to the argument that the high-tech swimwear was taking away from the physical skill of the swimmers, and the expensive suits were giving an unfair advantage to those who could afford them; FINA wanted “to recall the main and core principle is that swimming is a sport essentially based on the physical performance of the athlete” and therefore banned the more high-tech styles.

For non-olympic swimmers, who compete at a much lower level or swim for exercise, the style of the athletic swimsuit has remind fairly stable since the introduction of elastane in the 1970s. The racerback is the most common style for one and two piece suits and the garments generally have fuller coverage over the bottom and a high-ish cut around the legs. Fabrics are almost always a nylon/elastane combination that allows for greater elasticity, less water resistance and better durability. While athletic swimsuits are definitely still more concerned with fit and performance than fashion, modern styles are being produced in more interesting prints and colours, and some companies are playing with strap placement and embellishments to make the utilitarian suits a little more pretty.

…of the name: These swimsuits are used by athletes while training or swimming for competition or exercise and therefore their design is focused on athletic performance rather than fashion trends.

For more info on Athletic Swimsuits try Wikipedia here, here or here

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