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A revolutionary swimsuit

Finalist for European Inventor of the Year 2009 in the “Industry” category

Fiona Fairhurst, formerly Product Manager Research and Development , at Speedo, spent years developing the perfect swimsuit. Over the last decade, Speedo's  "Fastskin" suit and advancements of that technology have turned heads as the new "silver bullet" in professional swimming, leading to numerous world records and Olympic medals.

Still from nominee film (JPG)

At a glance

Inventor(s): Fiona Fairhurst (GB)

Invention: Fastskin Bathing Suit

Sector: Sport

Company: Speedo

At the Olympic level of competitive swimming, fractions of a second determine whether an athlete takes home gold or silver. While technique and strength are irreplaceable, the right suit can give swimmers an important competitive edge.

The revolutionary "Fastskin" swimsuit was the brainchild of Speedo's R&D team led by Fiona Fairhurst, a textiles expert formerly employed at Speedo. They successfully developed the suit to make the human body more "hydrodynamic" - science speak for gliding through water with minimal resistance.

Fairhurst knows what it takes; the 37-year was a competitive swimmer herself until age 16.

Starting in 1999, Fairhurst, a member of  Speedo's R&D team set out,to find the perfect fabric and cut for the new suit. Crucial scientific expertise in hydrodynamics came from Jane Cappaert, a researcher at the International Center for Aquatic Research. Cappaert had already studied the power output of swimmers at the 1982 Olympics. Their goal was to find a material that reduces skin friction in water. As a model, Fairhurst found hydrodynamic animals particularly interesting.

Finally, Fairhurst's team zeroed in on sharks. They are highly agile swimmers, even though their bodies create massive turbulence underwater. The secret, Speedo learned, lies in the shark's skin. It is patterned with little ridges called "denticles". They reduce the amount of water that touches the shark as it swims.

Speedo developed a material that mimics the skin structure of sharks. The final result was a knitted, water repellent fabric with printed ‘denticle' features.  

The rest is history: The Fastskin debuted at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where 83 percent of medals were won by swimmers wearing the new suit. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, swimmers wearing the second-generation of the Fastskin suit (which now also featured a unique hydrodynamic cut that fits swimmers like a "second skin") earned a total of 47 medals.

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