SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Michael Phelps, Dara Torres and everyone else competing at next month's U.S. nationals won't be alone in the ready room before their races.
Joining them in the typically small and tense area where swimmers wait before going on deck will be inspectors making sure athletes are wearing approved suits. Those who aren't will be told to change on the spot or be disqualified.
Suit inspectors are just part of USA Swimming's new plans to implement FINA's rules on approved suits at its sanctioned events, beginning with nationals in Indianapolis on July 7-11.
"Our goal is for it to not affect the athlete," said Mike Unger, assistant executive director of USA Swimming. "We want them to focus on their races. We're going to ask for patience."
Swimmers usually have to be in the ready room 10 minutes before their race, but that will be expanded to 15 minutes in Indianapolis and they must be wearing the suit they intend to race in.
Only allowed suits that are available to all swimmers may be used at nationals, which also serves as the selection trials for the world championships in Rome later in July.
So a superstar like Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, will be subject to a suit check the same as Dagny Knutson, a 17-year-old budding star from Minot, N.D.
Inspectors will check athletes of their same gender. Three people will be in charge of the ready room -- a member of FINA's technical committee, a high-ranking USA Swimming meet official and Jan-Anders Manson of Switzerland, who led the testing on suits for FINA.
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, doesn't anticipate the inspections being a problem.
"They're not going to have to examine them that closely," he said during last weekend's Santa Clara International Grand Prix meet.
Phelps typically wears a handful of suits during a meet, changing styles depending on which events he's competing in.
"I'm always confident I'm wearing the best suit," he said. "I don't even think about it. I know what I'm wearing and what I have to do."
Last month, swimming's governing body approved 202 high-tech racing suits and rejected 10 others for the world championships. FINA put the suits through laboratory tests for thickness, buoyancy and water resistance and sent back 136 models to manufacturers, who were given 30 days to resubmit modified designs.
"It's made a very bumpy playing field," said Unger, noting that someone like Phelps has unlimited access to suits costing up to $500 through his endorsement deal with Speedo, while less recognized swimmers without deals have to pony up their own money.
The biggest complaints, Unger said, have been from coaches who had already spent hundreds of dollars buying suits that have since been banned.
USA Swimming is mandating that manufacturers must be in Indianapolis with their approved swimsuits available for all swimmers on a purchase, loan, giveaway or other basis. The national governing body will publish a list of manufacturers who have done so, allowing swimmers to rely on the list as approval to wear a particular swimsuit at nationals.
"It's better for the sport to have these guidelines," Bowman said. "It's going to make a big impact on leveling the playing field."
Swimmers who earn spots on the U.S. team for Rome will have to wear racing suits there with a FINA-approved label inside. National team managing director Lindsay Mintenko will collect team members' suits at nationals and take them to Rome on July 12 to have labels affixed.
If manufacturers don't submit suits to Mintenko, it will be their responsibility to have the FINA-approved labels affixed. Any swimmer wearing a suit without the label won't be eligible to compete in Rome.
Olympic champion Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe welcomes the tighter suit restrictions that await in Rome.
"It's right that FINA is taking a stand. What they're doing is good," she said. "Last year after a lot of the performances, it was, 'How much of that was you and how much was the suit?' There is a little bit that is taken away from the athlete and that's not fair."
At U.S. nationals, teams will be asked to provide meet officials with the brand and model of suit their athletes plan to wear in competition. Swimmers will be allowed to wear only one suit. At the Beijing Olympics, some swimmers wore a second "modesty" suit because many of the high-tech suits are see-through.
Swimmers can wear traditional suits that aren't on the FINA-approved list if women's suits don't cover the neck or extend past the shoulders or pelvis and if men's suits don't extend above the navel or below the knees.
FINA is in a race of its own to regulate the rapid advances in swimsuit technology that led to 108 world records being broken last year.
Olympic breaststroke champion Leisel Jones of Australia is sitting out the world championships, but she hopes the new suit rules have the desired effect.
"It's hard because swimming is turning into a race of suits instead of a race of swimmers," she said. "We've got technology on our side and people are using it."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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