The wetsuit is a protective garment worn by athletes who participate in any water sports where either warmth or greater buoyancy are desired. Wetsuits are constructed in a variety of styles, with neoprene rubber the common construction material used. A wet suit provides insulation to the wearer in two separate ways. Neoprene is a compound that contains tiny air bubbles in its structure, a characteristic that insulates the wearer against the effect of cold water or air. As its name suggests, the wetsuit permits water to enter between the wetsuit material and the skin of the user. The thin layer of water created is warmed by body heat, forming a second insulating layer between the skin and the neoprene. In contrast, a drysuit is constructed with rubber seals at the neck, wrists, and legs of the suit, to prevent water from contact with the skin.
The originator of the wetsuit cannot be determined with absolute precision. The weight of historical evidence suggests that Hugh Bradner, a physicist employed at the University of California Berkley developed the first wetsuit for use by United States Navy "frogmen" in 1952. Bradner hoped to make these divers more efficient in their underwater movements through his one piece wetsuit. After manufacturing a few prototypes, the project was abandoned and Bradner never patented his creation, which employed neoprene its design.
Wetsuits are worn by participants in virtually every outdoor water sport; the protective properties of the wetsuit are of particular importance to surfers, water skiers, kayakers, and other athletes who are exposed to the effects of cold water and air for a considerable period. In the triathlon and Iron man competitions, the wetsuit affords both protection to the athlete in cold water, as well as providing an extra degree of buoyancy in swim segments that may be as long as 2.4 mi (4 km). In internationally sanctioned competition, a triathlon wetsuit may not exceed 5 mm in thickness to prevent an athlete from gaining an undue buoyancy advantage with the suit.
Swimmers who compete in the traditional Olympic races held in a 25-m or a 50-m pool may also utilize wetsuits of a highly specialized nature. These suits are designed not for protection or buoyancy, but to provide the swimmer with a more hydrodynamic profile in the water. Designed to mimic the effect of a shark's skin in water, these swim wetsuits are manufactured with tiny v-shaped ridges that create differing regions of water pressure across the suit surface, reducing the effect of drag on the swimmer as they move through the water.
Wetsuits are now manufactured in specific styles for particular sports; the triathlon wetsuit, as an example, has a number of carefully positioned zippers and releases to permit the athlete to remove the suit very quickly as they make a transition to the bicycle segment of the events. Wetsuits are generally available in three distinct styles—a full coverage suit that exposes the head, hands, and feet; the "Farmer John", where the shoulders and arms are also exposed for greater freedom of movement; the "shortie", styled to expose the legs as well as the arms.