This starts as a product review and ends with a deeper review of our culture. It might help you if you are considering buying a wetsuit for open water swimming as well as considering life's mysteries in a consumeristic society.
20 years ago I was involved in triathlons. The swim, bike, run culture, for me, was an extension of who I was. It was a way to challenge myself considering I loathed the culture I often saw that craved complacence and comfort. It was a way to be inspired and reach higher as I trained with others who dreamed of (and became) being world standard. It was a way to express my faith through talking with others as well as sports chaplaincy.
Now 20 years in the future I find myself dabbling in this world again. This journey has made me reflect on the sport, its equipment and our broader culture. Here is the story.
All my gear is 20 years old: wetsuit, bike etc. So, I recently upgraded my wettie. Now a wetsuit does two things: firstly, it keeps you warm. The rubber of a wetsuit traps heat. So a lot of design goes into finding rubber that both keeps you warm and allows you to move freely.
Secondly, a wetsuit makes you more buoyant and therefore, faster. The rubber lifts you up in the water so you swim more "on top" of the water rather than "in" the water. This is why triathlon wetsuits are limited to 5mm thickness. Being too thick becomes an unfair advantage.
Science of speed
I decided I would conduct a little experiment and see if the new wetsuit is faster than my 20 year old wetsuit, complete with holes and torn stitching. Firstly, I swam in a 50 meter pool in my shorts. The time I did is my control. Then I swam in my 20 year old wetsuit. The older rubber and limited flexibility still produced a 16% increase in my time.
That's proof that wetsuits allow you to swim real fast! Then my new 2016 wetsuit: 20% faster. The flexibility in the shoulders was noticeable. Moral of the story is if you want to swim fast, buy a wetsuit. And a recent model is better.
But on a deeper level, if a $100 wetsuit makes you swim fast, does a $1000 wetsuit make you swim 10 times faster? If someone buys a new bike (or car or insert your treasure here) for $1000 is a $10,000 item that much better?
The problem with triathlons (or cars or our culture etc) is that we become obsessed by "stuff." We consume because that is what our culture hegemonically commands. So new stuff is always better. And more expensive stuff is best! (according to the maxim).
We can justify spending our money convincing ourselves of the benefits, when in reality we know there is a tapering of the performance benefits. A new $10, 000 bike might have a slightly stiffer frame and be 600g lighter but for the average athlete that means nothing. The $1000 bike would produce similar results.
So I can't justify spending $1000 on a wetsuit that won't make me swim that much faster. I am better off learning to swim and spending the money elsewhere. So, when I see the Compassion child sponsorship advertisement at church I can see some perspective through the haze of my consumeristic worldview.
I see a child begging on the street of India while I enjoy swimming up and down my local river in a new wetsuit. Or I see a family struggling to educate their children in Africa while I whinge about driving a $2000 car with a 10 stack CD player.
Don't get me wrong, swimming is an extension of who I am and I enjoy it. But I struggle with the idea that I need to have more expensive stuff to enjoy it more. What that tapering limit is? I am not sure. How much is self-expression and self-indulgence? I am not sure. But I know I need to be careful to not make it my treasure because there my heart will go also.
Anyway, if you have made it through reading this article I hope you can wrestle with the different perspectives I see. I hope you can enjoy swims, exercise, life etc. but wrestle with this in perspective of our culture that wants to shape the way you consume as well as give. While you are wrestling with this check out www.compassion.com.au/
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor.
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html