Sport & Exercise Science

Speedo’s ‘Fastskin’ inventor nominated for top award

Fiona Fairhurst

Fiona Fairhurst

On the 28th April, around 450 guests gathered at Prague Castle to see President of the European Patents Office Alison Brimelow and Heinz Zourek, Director General of the EC’s DG Enterprise, present the awards to outstanding inventors in four categories.

Among the three nominees in the Industry category was Fiona Fairhurst who was nominated for her work on the development of Speedo’s Fastskin high-tech Lazer swimsuit.

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

But it was as a student at Huddersfield University that she first started to investigate which creatures moved fastest and how they did it.

She began initially by looking at man-made speedsters and first studied racing cars to see how they overcame drag and then took up SCUBA diving to better understand buoyancy.

Then came a critical day in 1997 when she visited a group of military designers and spotted a stuffed penguin. The designers told her they were trying to develop a flak jacket using principles of penguins’ feathers and this started her thinking about what moves fast generally.

This led her to Cheetahs, then dolphins and finally, Oliver Crummin at London’s Natural History Museum, who convinced her that Sharks should be her model.

He explained how sharks are not naturally hydrodynamic and create massive turbulence in the water in the same way as humans. Nonetheless, they are still able to move very fast and it is their skin that helps them swim efficiently by having dermal denticles – triangular projections that point backwards and decrease drag and turbulence by making water spiral off the shark’s body.

In 1999 and by now a member of swimwear manufacturer Speedo’s Research and Development team Fairhurst magnified the skin of a shark challenged Speedo to copy it.

450 different types of fabric and 10, $25,000 prototype swimsuits later the final result was the revolutionary Fastskin swimsuit made from a knitted, water repellent fabric with printed ‘denticle’ features.

The rest is history: The Fastskin debuted at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where 83 per cent 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 followed by an even more impressive haul for the ‘Lazer’ in Beijing in 2008.

In the end however, it was to prove a rare defeat for Speedo as the judges gave the award to Jürg Zimmermann (Switzerland) and Brian Drucker (USA) who invented a drug to combat chronic myelogenous leukaemia with unprecedented rates of recovery.

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