ARMS-UP: The Story of a Wetsuit Epiphany
When a solution is right in front of you, sometimes it’s hardest to see. At ROKA, we’re always looking for those solutions, and our favorite breakthroughs are the ones that leave us scratching our heads and saying “Why didn’t we think of this before?”
When we introduced our patented arms-up wetsuit design with the Maverick X in 2016, it was one of those breakthroughs.
Anyone who has swum in a traditional “arms-down” wetsuit is familiar with the feeling of shoulder restriction that comes with swimming in a wetsuit. That feeling comes in varying degrees, ranging from a mildly uncomfortable constraint (often early in a swim) to outright lethargy in the shoulders (typically late in a race). Most serious triathletes and open water swimmers have spent time attempting to minimize this with some combination of the right model of suit, the right size, the way they put on their suit, and what they wear underneath. But most have also resigned to “just deal with it” in one way or another, with some even going so far as to modify their swim stroke to accommodate their suit.
For years, eliminating this shoulder restriction has been a holy grail for wetsuit manufacturers, including ROKA. Historically, the problem has been attacked from the angle of better materials – more flexible neoprene, thinner neoprene, etc. When we launched our original Maverick Pro in 2013, one point of focus was the often-overlooked fact that the textile liners on the inside of a wetsuit have more restrictive stretch profiles than neoprene, and therefore have a greater impact on the flexibility of the suit than the rubber itself. This focus on liners, combined with the principles of centerline buoyancy introduced in that debut suit, made it a faster and more natural-feeling wetsuit than anything that had come before it.
Feedback for the original Maverick Pro was better than we ever could have hoped for, from pros to beginners to professional gear junkies. It left us wondering: will we even be able to improve on this?
And that’s where we went back to the drawing board. In the words of Mark Stephens, a former national champion swimmer and ROKA's VP of Product Development, “We asked questions like: ‘Is there anything obvious that we're missing? Are there any unchallenged assumptions here?’” Mark comes from a product design background where human-centered ground-up thinking like this is fundamental. “Eventually, as we thought about those basic questions, we said: ‘Wait a minute. Why does a wetsuit have essentially the same pattern as a t-shirt?’ And of course it’s because everyone was building from what they already knew when the first wetsuits were developed. But that’s not at all what’s best for swimming!”
And so we started prototyping arms-up suits. We did a lot of experimenting and iteration to dial in questions like how far the arms should be up, but from the very first prototype, we knew we were on to something. As Stephens says, “When we got those first prototypes, we were excited but nervous to try them out. Would they be better or would they just be weird? But it wasn’t even close – they weren’t just a little better than traditional suits, they were a lot better. And we were sitting there going, ‘How did we not think of this before?’”
With athletes and customers ranging from world champions like Gwen Jorgensen and Javi Gomez to age groupers from a range of athletic backgrounds, it’s been a revelation as well. "(The arns-up pattern) finally gives the shoulder the freedom that swimmers want," said Gomez. "Holy buckets! The difference was night and day. The suit was a LOT more flexible," wrote one age group reviewer. Similar sentiments have been echoed repeatedly by athletes of all abilities.
One thing we pride ourselves on at ROKA is the way we diffuse our technology throughout our offering and make our best ideas available to people at every price point. After the overwhelming response to the Maverick X in 2016, we brought Arms-Up to the Maverick Pro II and Maverick Elite II in 2017. In 2018, we’re featuring the technology across our entire Maverick lineup, from the entry-level $350 Maverick Comp II to the torpedo-fast $925 Maverick X. We’re also introducing it in our short-sleeved Viper swimskins, and a modified-to-also-be-great-for-biking-and-running version of it in our short-sleeved Gen II tri suits.
A favorite saying of ROKA co-founder Kurt Spenser is, “Confidence is the ultimate performance enhancer.” We embrace this wholeheartedly, and we love equipping athletes with gear that not only performs better but also gets out of their way and helps them to be more confident, whether it’s a pro saying “I can swim naturally for the first time,” or a rookie saying “I feel more at ease in open water now”. Our whole team is incredibly proud of the way we’ve done this with arms-up technology. With the technology now expanding across our whole line-up, we're excited that more athletes will get to experience a more confident, faster swim this year than ever before.