That year it was all about the latest bodysuit. For the arms race that swimming had become, you simply had to had to have it. So, I joined the line to get one, along with most of the other swimmers from developing nations without suit sponsors. The sense of awe and the absolute power of a totalitarian state that Rome’s Foro Italico was designed to convey in the 1930’s, seemed intimidating and surreal as a desperate winding column of mostly dark skinned youths huddled on the floor against the wall stretching into its immense marble interior.
My new “Jaked” bodysuit wasn’t a perfect fit but at least I had gotten one. Skin tight, like it was supposed to be, it constricted my breathing like a corset. I wasn’t going to breath in the 50m anyway I told myself.
Tight was fast, and looser and the suit would catch water around the neck and chest, balloon out, and sink you along with your hopes and dreams. Not only were the newest bodysuits hydrodynamic, but also slightly buoyant. Poor swimmers with them had been sensationally beating famous swimmers without them all year. However, everyone had caught on to this technological development by now.
The relief gained from obtaining a suit, quickly turned to dismay after a poor showing in the 100m freestyle. I knew that at these 2009 World Championships, the year after the Beijing Olympics, I couldn’t justify the sacrifice required to make another run at the Olympics, if I was unable prove to be competitive by at least making the finals here.
My back was against the wall. I had to make the World Champ finals in the 50m Freestyle or retire then and there from the sport. Swimming like there was no tomorrow landed me a berth in the semi finals as the fourth fastest qualifier. I had survived to fight again.
The process of putting on a Jaked bodysuit required half an hour of painfully pinching and pulling the super tight fabric one centimetre at a time up each leg one leg, before squeezing into it, and tugging it up the torso. As I struggled to finish this process in the locker room, a friend approached me.
“Hey George! Take another suit with you, just in case. Jason Dunford from Kenya suggested.
“What do you mean by in case?” I asked.
Jason pointed to his lower leg, where his shaved calf muscle now bulged out from a tear along the seam of the jet black suit.
“I am not sure, but I think it happened on my dive. I could feel it dragging in the race.”
“You are lucky it was just your calf!” I joked.
I deliberately censored my thoughts about the possibilities of a ripped suit, especially since I had only one current model and directed them again towards the subtle nuances of the perfect dive and breakout that I intend to unleash. Heeding his advice, I grabbed my only other option—an outdated old worn out LZR bodysuit, that I had used in Beijing and worn in countless races that year. “I hope it doesn’t come to this,” I said to him, holding it up as I headed off to the ready room to meet my fate.
The programme was run on rigid television schedule for NBC. The semifinal was slated to start at precisely 18:33. With two minutes to go, the roar of the crowd and the announcer’s voice massaged my adrenal glands. Leaning forward in my chair, I suddenly felt a cold sensation beneath me. To my horror, my Jaked bodysuit had spontaneously ripped at the seam underneath me and rolled up like popped balloon.
To compound this disaster, at that exact moment the Fina officials began calling for the semi-final to march out in front of tens of thousands of roaring spectators. All around me, confused semi-finalists began to roust from their seats in disbelief and assemble in order from lane one to eight.
My requests for a few minutes of grace from the Fina officials were met with an unsympathetic tirade of insistent yelling and frantic gesticulations for everyone walk out. Creating a scene, I roared back furiously, imploring them to wait for me. I couldn’t bring myself to accept this as the indignant end to my once illustrious swimming career. I had to try.
Desperate and with no time to waste, I stood up, naked, and tore open the legs and torso of my confounded suit and began to frantically force my feet into the tiny elastic tubes that constituted the suit’s legs. To make matters worse, a crowd of volunteers, officials and swimmers had gathered to see what the commotion was all about.
“We’re not going out without George!” Jason Dunford and Duje Draganja exclaimed in unison at the furious officials in a show of solidarity and sportsmanship that I will forever be grateful for. The other semifinalists joined them and refused to walk out without me. I now had a chance! One of my rivals, Cullen Jones from the USA, then came to my aid, holding a towel up to restore my dignity as I continued to change hurriedly into my backup suit.