By Tom Demerly for TriSports University.
One wetsuit is $699 and one is $249. What is the difference? What are the benefits?
Legacy aquatic company Aqua Sphere, tracing their origin back to Jacques Cousteau’s Aqua Lung and U.S. Divers brands, have released their new 2012 Pursuit and Phantom triathlon wetsuits. There is no better place to look to understand the difference between high end full suits and entry price point suits.
The Aqua Sphere Pursuit: Cheap and Good.
It’s easy to find a “bargain basement” full suit but its hard to find one that’s a real bargain; a suit that fits well, swims great and lasts more than five races. Most quality triathlon full wetsuits are $299 and up. None, except for Aqua Sphere, come from the company that equipped the very first SCUBA divers. That legacy is important for two reasons: Design experience and supply relationships. Both benefit the Aqua Sphere customer.
In researching my review of the $249 Aqua Sphere Pursuit I found full triathlon wetsuits as low as $97. That seems enticing to first time buyers who want to get their feet wet in the sport. You don’t have to dive too deep into their specs to see they leave you washed up. Stiff fabric, few panels, limited sizes with poor fit, bad neck designs and sketchy zippers are common in bargain basement wetsuits. It doesn’t seem like a big deal in the fitting room, but a quarter mile off shore during your first triathlon it may be the difference between a decent swim split and a panic attack.
While the $249 price tag may be the first thing you notice about the Aqua Sphere Pursuit the details built into the suit are what get you back to the beach faster. Most of the features in the $249 Pursuit weren’t available on $400 full suits five years ago.
The main fabric on the Pursuit is Yamamoto 38 with SCS coating. Some of the fastest triathlon swims on earth have been done in that neoprene. Some tests, including ours, suggest this slightly stiffer, more buoyant neoprene may be faster for most swimmers than the more flexible and expensive Yamamoto 40 neoprene. Wetsuit performance isn’t as simple as “good, better, best”. The Yamamoto 38 SCS is located in the areas that need floatation the most; legs and chest. Aqua Sphere targets this suit at the new triathlete and knows they are likely a weak open water swimmer. Most weak swimmers need help with buoyancy in the legs so Aqua Sphere put most of the buoyancy there in the Pursuit.
There are panels at the hip and buttocks with nylon 2 sided neoprene to reduce cost and increase hip flexibility. The disadvantage of a textile outer, nylon 2 sided fabric is water absorption and surface friction. Aqua Sphere did well to use this fabric in the best possible place to free-up your kick from the hip and to keep this fabric above the waterline during much of your stroke. In our tests this suit floated and swam very well with no leaking through the nylon 2 sided neoprene and great flexibility. Our main test swimmer, elite age grouper Antonio Soto, remarked at how much more buoyant the Pursuit felt than the more expensive Phantom.
There are concessions to cost on the Pursuit including a traditional zipper that opens by pulling downward. Even with these minor concessions Aqua Sphere still packed features like speed-cut legs with a thinner neoprene panel on the back of the leg to facilitate rapid (and rough) removal in the transition. The key feature in the Pursuit is how well it swims. In our pool tests the suit felt better than many previous model year $400 full suits. While the $249 price point of the Phantom may be what gets you into the suit the impressive fit, feel and performance in the water will mean you won’t find a compelling reason to replace this suit for a few seasons. This suit swims way better than its price.
The Aqua Sphere Phantom: $699.
To make a suit swim tangibly different it has to be designed differently. The stand-out suits all feature something unique: De Soto’s two piece suits, “Metal Cell” suits with totally non-absorbent (albeit stiff) liners, suits with super flexible, lightweight neoprene that are barely wetsuits at all. Aqua Sphere identified a key problem with full wetsuit performance, especially during long swims: The suit takes on water in the lower back, especially for very fit (read: thin) swimmers. Aqua Sphere put a compression “Core Power” internal support belt inside the suit to improve body proprioception. Proprioception is your awareness of body position in the water. The Core Power belt reminds you to swim from the hips and rotate your core, freestyle technique basics.
Another key benefit to the Core Power System is preventing water pooling in the lower back of the wetsuit, a phenomenon that causes wetsuits to become slower over longer distance swims as they accumulate water in the loose space between your lower back and the neoprene. This not only causes you to become gradually less buoyant during a long swim but it compromises your body position, sinking your legs and making your stroke less streamlined. Our tester remarked that the belt was effective in pulling the lower back of the suit in and prevented water pooling inside the suit at the lower back.
Arm construction on the Phantom features some unique approaches to maintaining stroke efficiency. The Phantom is like a coach on the pool deck yelling to keep your elbows up. Unlike the abrasive swim coach the Phantom supports high elbows with a thick 5mm nylon 2 sided neoprene section called the Auto-Positioning sleeve, just behind the elbow. The Auto-Positioning Sleeve floats the elbow higher through the stroke cycle. The feature is complimented with the Bio Stretch Zone of flexible neoprene under the latissimus muscles at the under arm and lower back. These enable easier arm movement making swimming feel natural.
Whether it was designed in or not we also found an odd ability of the Phantom’s outer surface to hold a sheen of bubbles. This may be related to new coating applied to the outside of neoprene fabrics. The accumulation of bubbles will help with buoyancy and passage of the suit through the water, a technology seen in underwater projectiles.
In general our testers felt the stroke enhancing features were noticeable during swimming and “helped remind me where to put my arms even when tired” according to one swimmer.
One technology that definately makes the Phantom faster in the transition is a longer zipper that zips downward to close and pulls upward to open. The lower opening means its easier to pull the suit over your hips. While you have to open the hook and loop closure of the Core Power System belt once you remove the top section of the suit this will be done while exiting the water on the move so it does not add transition time. Athletes don’t start to pull their suit down until they are standing at their bike in T1. The first downward pull is critical to get the suit as low as possible so you can pull the legs off using your feet.
Aqua Sphere finished the Phantom off with a horseshoe-cut opening at the ankle and a thin neoprene back panel over your calf to follow through on the design theme of quick wetsuit removal.
Given the aquatic design legacy of Aqua Sphere stretching all the way back to Jacques Cousteau and now with the support of top pro athletes like Olympian Amanda Beard, Multiple Ironman winner Luke McKenzie and New Zealand star Terenzo Bozzone we weren’t surprised the unique features in the Aqua Sphere Phantom produced noticeable results. We were surprised and delighted to see their entry price point $249 Pursuit full suit is a valid category killer in entry level wetsuits and likely represents the very best value in the entire category.