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Original Issue

Speediest swimsuits in a watery world

An Australian company, Speedo Knitting Mills in Sydney, produces the competition swimsuits that will be worn at the Olympic Games in Mexico City this fall by teams of 18 different countries, including the U.S.

Over the years, as certain items of sports apparel become classics, the brand names attached to them assume a generic character—names like Levi's, Bogners and Top-Siders, for example. Now there is another—Speedo. Speedos are racing swimsuits—and racing swimsuits are Speedos. Made by Speedo Knitting Mills in Sydney, Australia, these little one-or two-ounce chunks of quick-drying nylon tricot are so well constructed that even the U.S. Olympic team, representing a country that makes more swimsuits than any other in the world, wears Speedo.

It is largely thanks to the American swimming team that the Speedo racing suit became known internationally. At Melbourne in 1956, U.S. swimmers were so impressed with the sleek, formfitting suits worn by the gold-medal-laden Australians that they brought some home. After several U.S. competitors wore them in Rome in 1960 and in Tokyo in 1964, the U.S. Olympic Committee selected Speedos as official team equipment for the 1967 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg and the forthcoming Olympics. The 1968 U.S. team suit, worn by Jytte Healey in the photograph, has wide red-and-blue stripes divided by a fine white stripe. The Italian suit, worn by Ross Cornwall on the left, is green with red-and-white side panels.

U.S. Olympic Coach George Haines says, "You can't say the suit is faster than any other but you feel fast."

Because the nylon tricot is nonabsorbent, a Speedo suit will be dry 15 minutes after a swim, making it ideal for travel. The suits were first sold in the United States in 1960, when a racing enthusiast named Bill Lee of Palo Alto, Calif., bought 1,000 from the Australian firm and sold them by mail. The response was more than Lee could handle, so he made a licensing arrangement with White Stag to distribute Speedo under his supervision. In 1968 more than 400,000 Speedos will be sold in the U.S.

The racing suit is not the only sporting garment the company makes. The four MacRae brothers—who run the firm started by their father, a Scottish immigrant—are deepwater sailors, and they make sailing gear, wet suits for the cold Australian surf and the team suits worn by the 25,000 lifeguards who patrol Australian beaches. A wet suit is worn in the photograph by Nat Young, who is not only head of the company's wet-suit division but was the 1966 world champion surfer. The one-piece surf-life-saving suit is worn by Peter Wright.

Bill Lee predicts that the speediest swimsuits in the world will be worn by all the gold-medal winners in Mexico—and that should sell a few thousand more Speedos in 1969.