Swim

The Evolution of the Swimming Wetsuit Design

A look at the annals of neoprene.

A good wetsuit is a key component to any triathletes’ gear collection. Here’s a look at the path to the sleek swimming wetsuit design we have today, plus a peek into what’s coming next.

Swimming Wetsuit Design Timeline

1928
Inventor Lawrence Wright files patent for “Swimming Garment and Life Preserver,” a pair of swim trunks with a flotation belt made of rubber for safety in the water.

1940
Rubberized swimming garments gain a reputation for warmth, added protection against painful abrasions caused by underwater coral or rocks, and effortless movement in the water.

1950
Rubber becomes the norm for surfers, who visit tailors with custom designs for full-body “underwater suits” made of neoprene to extend their time in the water.

Swimming Wetsuit Design
Photo: Getty Images

1986
At the Bass Lake Triathlon, Dan Empfield notices a handful of swimmers wearing surf wetsuits: “The water was cold, we were standing in our Speedos in snow waiting for the gun to go off. Professional triathletes Scott Tinley and Gary Peterson swam in what appeared to be just their surf wetsuits, and they didn’t swim slow.”

Swimming Wetsuit Design

1987
Empfield conducts a series of tests to investigate the impact of wetsuits. His original hypothesis: Staying warm in the water means muscles move more efficiently. The reality: A buoyant swimmer is also a faster swimmer. Empfield goes all-in on this discovery, developing the first triathlon-specific wetsuit prototype.

1993
Empfield’s innovation becomes a necessity for the competitive triathlete—if you didn’t have a wetsuit, you were certain to enter T1 at a large disadvantage. Ironman gets in on the action, developing its own licensed wetsuit to compete with Empfield’s Quintana Roo wetsuit (Ironman’s wetsuit manufacturer eventually split off, and is now the brand Blueseventy).

1997
Yamomoto develops Super Composite Skin (SCS) rubber. “Before, neoprene used in triathlon wetsuits tore very easily, was tacky, and tended to stick to itself,” says Blueseventy CEO John Duquette. “The SCS coating eliminated that, and is one of the biggest discoveries in modern wetsuit technology.”

Early 2000s
More triathlon wetsuit manufacturers enter the fray, experimenting with a variety of features, including two-piece wetsuits, offset zippers, thinner necks, advanced leg openings for removal, magnetic closures, and strategic flotation panels at varying points around the body.

Swimming Wetsuit Design
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

2009
Blueseventy introduces the first line of wetsuits made specifically for women.

2020
Wetsuit manufacturers continue to optimize their design. On their radar: Eliminating hard zippers, overall neck comfort, easier (and faster) removal.