ISU professor's design makes impact on Olympic swimmers

New swim suit adheres to new rules

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March 31, 2014 | 10:27 pm

AMES - Technology advances briskly.

Traditionalists sometimes bristle at its breakneck pace — as they did in the sport of swimming after Speedo’s LZR suits were the drag-resisting body-covering of choice for athletes winning 94 percent of the gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

Copycats followed.

Records fell hard.

Something had to be done.

“Times of the athletes just started dropping too much, too fast for people to absorb,” said Iowa State Kinesiology Professor Rick Sharp, who helped design those LZR suits, as well as the new Speedo Fastskin3 Racing System in use during the London Olympics. “They felt like they needed to put some tighter limits on that, so they did in 2010 and the new regulations would’t allow as much coverage in a men’s suit.”

That sent Sharp and fellow scientists on the cutting edge back to the drawing board in an attempt to dial back technology a bit.

The result, the “Fastskin3 Racing System” remains state-of-the-art, but fully adheres to the new strictures.

“What they did, is they tried to turn the clock back a little bit to pre-2008 styles,” Sharp, 59, said.

So men, such as top Americans Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, wear jammers again.

Women, such as Missy Miller, still don suits providing coverage from the shoulders to the top of the knees.

And each time a swimmer wins — or ascends the medal stand — Sharp feels a sense of satisfaction.

Working with Speedo’s a hobby for the lifelong swimmer who competed collegiately at Chico (Calif.) State.

“It helps to confirm that we’re on the right track with our thinking — scientifically and developmentally,” Sharp said. “We’re trying to, ultimately, find out what limits performance and what we can do to help foster peak performance in humans. So these kinds of things help to sort of validate that, yeah, you’re on the right track.”

Sharp’s using the scientific method in even more profound and life-changing ways.

While the Speedo work’s a fun sidelight, he’s helping lead much headier and potentially ground-breaking research.

“We have a fairly big (National Institutes of Health)-sponsored study that we’re running right now with older adults,” Sharp said. “We have a little exercise intervention we put them through and we have them divided into groups that take different combinations of a vitamin D supplement and an amino acid supplement that we have reason to believe might help to preserve bone and muscle health as we go through the aging process.”

Heady stuff, indeed.

But there’s room for his hobby, which just happens to help lead to winning Olympic medals.

“As we mature through our careers we tend to gravitate a little bit more away from sport and more into maintaing human health in aging,” Sharp said of Kinesiology academicians. “Some of us hang onto a little bit of our sport interest. I guess we never grow up.”

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