There are probably not too many people who can talk passionately about a pair of shorts or break down the rather simple garment into an object of extreme scientific achievement.
David Robinson is one such person. The president of swimwear company Speedo International started as a salesman in the company 17 years ago but there’s still quite a bit of the salesperson left in him. “The Fastskin³ is made of a revolutionary proprietary fabric,” says Robinson about Speedo’s upcoming range, “which soaks a thin layer of water into it, creating a water barrier on the suit. This gives water over water contact which is the lowest possible drag. It’s made of a multi-compression weave. Each suit is individually woven in a piece of fabric. It has higher compression around certain areas of chest and hips; lower compression around the stomach to aid breathing and also has bonded seams end to end to lower drags.
“That technology is just incredible,” adds the soft-spoken and fabulously polite 40-year-old.
A pause in conversation allows Robinson to take a bite of his risotto. We are at the Italian restaurant Mezzo Mezzo in the JW Marriott in Juhu, Mumbai. Robinson’s jacket is draped over his chair, a consequence of the unforgiving heat in the city.
Robinson’s visit to India was a result of the company’s desire to grow in this market. This led the company, with a global sales figure of over $500 million (around Rs 2,790 crore) for 2011, to open two stores in the country—at the DLF Place in Saket, Delhi, in April, and Phoenix Market City in Whitefield, Bangalore, in June. The company’s president says he wants to inspire people to swim, to make available better products which are culturally appropriate. He himself, expectedly, swims wherever he travels—he had earlier looked wistfully out of the window at the swimming pool under renovation which was denying him a chance to cool off.
“Swimming can be the first and last sport you can do. There is no collateral damage—cycling is dangerous on these roads,” he says, laughing. “There was research over a 30-year period in which scientists monitored cyclists, runners and swimmers, who had 50% less chance of early mortality compared to the others.”
Robinson joined Speedo as a salesperson in the UK, rising to the position of country manager in 1999. He became the general manager of the equipment and footwear division in 2001 and following a successful tenure, was made senior vice-president, responsible for global products and marketing, in 2005. He became the co-president in 2006, before taking over his current position two years later, in Nottingham, UK.
No single sports goods company dominates a sport as much as Speedo does with swimming. In this Olympic year, it would make sense to explain that dominance through Olympic statistics—in 2000, Sydney, 83% of all swimming medals were won by athletes wearing Speedo; in Athens 2004, Michael Phelps became the first swimmer ever to win eight medals—wearing Fastskin FSII. In fact, more records are broken in swimming than in any other sport and many believe this is because even small changes in technique and training can produce considerable effects on performance.
Robinson talks passionately about the Speedo research facility, called Aqualab, in the UK which has about 20 people but has consultants across the world. Speedo itself, he says, is an energetic company where the average age is 35, with a predominantly and coincidentally female workforce. Aqualab, he says, is full of bright people, sports physiologists, fabric specialists and scientists skilled to produce any item. Their latest, Fastskin³—a “complete racing system”—was launched in November and will be used by swimmers at the forthcoming London Olympics.
“We start with the swimmer and put him/her at the centre of everything,” Robinson explains their working. “We look at the way they breathe, their bodies move, fat moves around their body… FS³ is designed like a F1 car. The most important piece is the nose and tail, the way it pierces the air/water and manages it over the body and releases it at the back to reduce the drag. This allows for a higher streamlined form and the lowest possible turbulence, which ultimately helps swim faster.”
Speedo’s enthusiasm for design has not been without its share of problems. The world swimming body, Federation Internationale de Natation (Fina), banned Speedo’s revolutionary bodysuit designed with help from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the LZR Racer, in 2009, after it helped create a rash of records. Around 23 records were broken at the Beijing Olympics wearing LZR Racer.
“To be an innovator and committed, it’s expensive and difficult,” says Robinson. “Our LZR Racer was successful but the governing body banned it. It said people swam too fast and changed the rules. So we have the next generation, the cap, suit and goggles together as a racing system.”
Staying afloat: Robinson, while talking about the FS³, says the reduction in drag on a goggle is equivalent to the weight of a can of Coke. ‘We have taken the can of Coke away, which reduces drag force by 62% just on the goggle,’ he says. Jayachandran/Mint
But Robinson insists that apart from that episode of conflict, the 84-year-old company and the sport’s governing body have enjoyed an amicable relationship.
He smiles as he recollects an irony. A swimsuit developed by the company in the 1930s created a controversy because it showed too much skin—Australian Clare Dennis, who won a gold medal in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was accused of “showing too much shoulder”. “Because it was an innovation, Speedo reduced coverage so people could move arms more freely,” says Robinson. “In 2008, another technology brought the fully covered bodysuit and people were shocked. In our 80-odd years, we are still creating controversies, this time for covering too much,” he adds, laughing.
The question of covering too much or too little shadows Speedo even when it’s designing for people who do not swim the 100m butterfly in less than a minute. That’s how, Robinson says, the company’s able to be present in 175 countries. “We have swimwear for South America/French Riviera and full body coverage from head to ankle where you cannot see any shape at all, for places like the Middle East, Malaysia, etc. The ‘skirtini’ is particularly popular. As part of our R&D, we have a body scanner to understand the differences in body shape. There is always a style that will make you feel your best.”
In India, he says, there are both needs—“some consumers prefer more coverage, others are choosing styles with less coverage, which seems to be a growing trend”.
I can’t resist asking about Phelps, who is attempting a return to the big stage in London, to add to his eight medals in Beijing 2008. “Phelps has spent many hours every day for a majority of his life pushing himself as hard as he can and making himself uncomfortable. Anybody who lives like that is incredibly driven.
“Swimmers, on the whole, are incredibly nice people. My theory is that in swimming it’s difficult to achieve Olympic status; if you haven’t got the ability to leave your ego at home and work hard, you will not make it.”
Robinson has already been to the Olympic facility in London, which he calls the most beautiful he has ever seen. “When you are inside, everything has a radius, everything is curved, the building feels organic. It made me understand the impact of design and architecture on the way we feel and behave as humans in buildings.
“The feeling of people coming together (at the Olympics) is magical. Imagine being able to see and later tell people that you saw the fastest any human being has ever run.”