LIANE HANSEN, host:
Michael Phelps wasn't the only swimmer breaking a record today. World and Olympic marks fell 12 times at the Olympic pool. Until today, the Water Cube structure that surrounds the pool has attracted all the attention. That's due to its bubble wrap exterior which glows blue at night. But with all those records falling, we're likely to hear about the pool itself. And as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, it's built for speed.
HOWARD BERKES: Speed, thrill, so fast swimmers want a fast pool to keep redefining what's fast.
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Unidentified Announcer: ...in the fourth and final heat, swimmer in lane four, Michael Phelps of the U.S.A. is the world and Olympic record holder.
BERKES: And in the first Olympic test of the Water Cube water Saturday, Michael Phelps redefined the Olympic limits in the 400-meter individual medley.
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BERKES: Phelps set an Olympic record then and a world record today. Of course, he's the best all-around swimmer to begin with. But did the pool have something to do with the speed? Maybe. Because it's built to be fast, says Rowdy Gaines, a former Olympic swimmer and NBC's swimming analyst at the Olympics.
Mr. ROWDY GAINES (Swimming Analyst, NBC; Former Olympic Swimmer): It's by far the fastest pool in the world I've ever seen. And when I say fast I'm talking about deep water. The athletes keep bragging about how deep it is. It's a perfect depth, because if it's too deep you lose your sense of vision where you're at in the pool. But it's just deep enough to where the waves dissipate. The turbulence dissipates down to the bottom because of that.
BERKES: The Water Cube pool is close to 10 feet deep. That's three feet deeper than the pools of the past. It's also two lanes wider, with no one actually swimming in those outside lanes. There are slotted gutters so that waves drain before splashing back. And the lane lines that separate swimmers are called wave-eaters. The goal is water as flat and clear as possible despite the churning swimmers create, says Christine Brennan, an Olympics columnist at USA Today.
Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Olympics Columnist, USA Today): It's physics, it's not sports. But it makes sense. You make a wider and a deeper pool, and you are going to give all of those waves and all of that splashing and all of that moving water a chance to move away from the swimmers and get out of their way, which makes them go faster, simple as that.
BERKES: An indoor setting also helps with temperature, humidity, and lighting control. And wide decks with seats sharply cascading back giving swimmers an uncrowded sense of space, that can energize athletes like American Dara Torres.
Ms. DARA TORRES (Swimmer, U.S. Olympic Team): I've never seen such a big facility in my life. And you get a great feeling walking into that facility knowing that, you know, this where the Olympic Games are. And they did an awesome job building it.
BERKES: This technology is standard now in the best competitive pools, and it's hard to imagine them getting better says Olympic medalist Rowdy Gaines.
Mr. GAINES: I think the technology has kind of tapped out as far as the building of these kind of facilities. I mean, you can only put this pool so deep, the gutter flow over gutter systems, the starting blocks, the lane lines. All those kinds of things, I can't imagine them getting better.
BERKES: And Gaines can't imagine making the water itself fast by changing its chemical composition, perhaps. Lately, in fact, new technology is focused on fast swimming suits. That in combination with the pool and the intensely competitive atmosphere of the Olympics means more records are likely to fall. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beijing.