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Adrift without a fast suit

I sold my jewelry to get a high-tech swimsuit and was rewarded with race victories and personal-best times. But now that's down the drain.

August 22, 2009|Kate Coleman | Kate Coleman is a writer in Berkeley.

I began lusting for Nero in April of this year.

I was at a regional swimming championship in Pleasanton and noticed how many competitors among my 65- to 69-year-old female peers had traded in their regular racing suits for the skintight, neoprene, high-tech swimsuit known as a Blue Seventy Nero. This glove-like body suit makes anyone faster, not just elite swimmers. But such suits are not cheap -- $400 for the Blue Nero. (The LZR high-neck suit worn by Americans during the last Olympics is $550.)

Those of us who love competing would all like to swim our best. But suddenly, swimming my best was out of my price range. I thought there was no way I could afford the suit.

Then, shortly after the Pleasanton meet, I was extracting a bauble from my old jewelry box for a rare dress-up night out and had a "eureka" moment: There was gold in there. Yes, jewelry is nice. But what does a girl in her mid-60s really want these days: a fast suit, of course! And with the price of gold in the stratosphere, my modest family jewels might just get me one.

I ransacked the box, gathering my late Uncle Harry's old class ring, some gold hoops I wore when I fancied the Gypsy look, the crumbling old gold fillings my dentist had removed, the odd extra links to a dressy watch I never wear and, finally, my dead Aunt Valerie's humongous gold earrings. Aunt Valerie, who lived in Beverly Hills and cared about these things, had told me that they were made by an Italian designer who had made jewelry for the wife of deposed Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. I'd worn them once -- too embarrassed by their vulgar size to trot them out again.

Loot in hand, I drove to a local fortress inviting sales of precious metals and jewelry for cash and was buzzed into what looked like a little bank, replete with grill-fronted windows. The "teller" weighed and tested my offerings, returning with a fistful of hundred-dollar bills -- more than twice the amount I needed for the suit. Now, I was ready to go to Nationals, the U.S. Masters Swimming annual championship, held this year in May in Clovis, Calif.

I was right in style. In the women's locker rooms, row after row of aisles revealed women of all ages struggling to wriggle into their ankle-length suits, some using plastic bags on their feet to ease them through. The suits are very tight, so tight that you need help zipping them up, all in the service of becoming hydrodynamically sleek. (And for those of us lacking Dara Torres' six-pack abs, the girdle effect is nothing to sneer at either.)

If I'd had any doubts about Nero's price tag, they were immediately dispelled by my first event, the 500-yard freestyle. I dove in and shot halfway across the pool, my body position perfectly streamlined. During the 20 laps of the race, I wouldn't let myself look at the woman in the next lane who, in 25 years of Masters swimming, had always beaten me. She wore the suit too. When it was over, I looked at the board and thought there must be some mistake: I had won gold, beating my rival by 12 seconds, and my time, 7:07, while not a record-setter, was nevertheless an astonishing 19 seconds faster than what I'd done the previous month at Pleasanton without the fast suit. I did personal-best times and placed in most of the other events as well.

The suit was my talisman. Yes, my times had been steadily coming down over the last two years as I had increased my training and focus, but the suit did something extra for me.

When I first bought the Nero, I was going to save it for pool competition. I'd been warned that the suits don't have a long life: as few as 15 to two dozen wearings. The fabric stretches out quickly. And I had been strictly advised not to wear it for saltwater swimming at all.

I had intended to follow the advice. But instead, I recently wore my Nero for a Northern California regional rough-water championship off the coast of Santa Cruz. (I won in my age group, thanks for asking.) And I have donned the suit for some of my summer open-water swims.

Why, you are wondering, would I take such a risk?

Because as of January 2010, these suits are banned by FINA, the world swimming body, and U.S. Masters Swimming, which complies with FINA rules, likely will fall in line. Acceptable women's fast suits can come down no further than the knees and cannot cover the arms. Neoprene is out altogether.

As a result, it's quite possible that a rash of international swimming records may never be equaled. And as for me, I don't think I can do a 7:07 500-free without my suit. It's downhill from here.

Meantime, I'm trying to get full wear out of my Nero, hence my devil-may-care donning of the suit even in saltwater at Santa Cruz. I can feel it stretching, and I mourn the cloak of relative greatness my suit conferred this year. Perhaps when it's retired in January, I can still nostalgically wriggle into it, wear it around the house, maybe hang a medal or two around my neck. I sold gold to win gold. It was a dream come true.

And nothing lasts forever.

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