Lawsuit escalates swim fight

Times Staff Writer

The battle between high-tech swimsuit manufacturers TYR and Speedo has escalated in a significant way, moving from the pool deck to the legal arena.

Huntington Beach’s TYR Sport Inc. upped the stakes by filing suit on Monday in federal court against Warnaco Swimwear Inc., parent company of Speedo and producer of the news-making LZR Racer swimsuit. TYR did not specify the damages it was seeking but did estimate that the long-term loss to the value of its brand could reach $500,000.

Also named in the suit, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, are USA Swimming and team head coach Mark Schubert and two-time Olympic silver medalist Erik Vendt, a former TYR pitchman.

The frenzy around the LZR exploded in mid-February when elite swimmers wearing the suit began smashing record after record -- 18 long-course world marks so far. The suit, designed with help from NASA, quickly became the target of criticism from rival manufacturers and from some swim federations, prompting Schubert to say in a March interview that such criticism smacked of “sour grapes.”

In documents filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, TYR alleges that Speedo, USA Swimming and Schubert “combined to engage in a campaign of falsely disparaging the products of Speedo’s competitors, including TYR, for the purpose of inducing competitive swimmers to refrain from doing business with Speedo’s competitors” and that it was done in an “especially insidious and deceptive manner.”


TYR attorney Lawrence J. Hilton said the company made several efforts to settle the matter and that TYR’s founder, former U.S. Olympic swimmer and medalist Steve Furniss, took this step with “great reluctance.”

In Vendt’s case, the issue is alleged breach of contract. The former USC swimmer, who now trains with Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and Club Wolverine in Ann Arbor, Mich., came out of retirement in 2006 and again signed with TYR.

Then, in January, Vendt’s representatives informed TYR that he would be wearing a Speedo FS Pro suit at a meet in Long Beach, according to the lawsuit. Vendt did just that because, as his agent later said in an interview, he was “wearing the suit he feels is the fastest in the world, not because there is any deal pending.”

Top Speedo officials could not be reached for comment and the company’s public relations firm said it had not yet seen the court papers, referring the matter to Warnaco’s legal counsel.

A spokesperson for USA Swimming said that it became aware of the lawsuit Wednesday, had not seen the filing, and said it would be inappropriate to comment until it had the chance to review the court papers, adding that Schubert was also unavailable for comment. Neither Vendt nor his agent returned calls.

Until now, the apparel fracas had been played out in pools and on the deck.

“TYR is very concerned about some of the things that are happening in the world of elite competitive swimming, and wants to see the issue about whose product is better resolved by swimmers in the pool,” said Hilton, calling claims of Speedo’s hold on new and innovative technology based on “misinformation.”

TYR’s answer this year to Speedo is the Tracer Rise. TYR swimmers this year have set one world record in a relay and were involved in three U.S. records. In the court documents, TYR cites several published reports from this year, though, in which Schubert recommends Speedo, including one interview in which he said he “will tell his team to wear Speedo at the U.S. trials.”

Less publicly, there was advocacy from Schubert at swim industry gatherings in late 2007 -- before the LZR debuted, the court papers said. His enthusiasm extended to what was called a mandatory team meeting at the Short Course World Championships in Manchester, England in April, telling swimmers that they would “have a two percent advantage if they wore the Speedo LZR technology,” according to the lawsuit.

“Schubert also arranged to have a fitting session during the mandatory team meeting where athletes were instructed on how to fit the Speedo LZR suit and position the LZR suit to the body,” the complaint said. “TYR-sponsored athletes in attendance expressed discomfort at Schubert’s unsolicited comments.”

Speedo has long been linked to USA Swimming, in a commercial sense, and in court papers TYR maintains that Schubert “is a paid spokesman for Speedo.” The complaint also raises antitrust issues, maintaining that the actions of the defendants have enabled Speedo to hike prices -- the LZR runs more than $500 -- and limit competition.