The first triathlon wetsuits of my design debuted for sale at the beginning of the 1987 season. They look fairly similar to the wetsuits of today but there were some important differences. Most of the features that make today's wetsuits better had already been worked out by the early 1990s. Chief among those were the use of rubber by Yamamoto, the ability to adhere silkscreen ink to the front of a smoothskin wetsuit, and the way necks, necklines and neck closures are made.
So that was it. By 1995 companies like Ironman wetsuits (now blueseventy), Orca, Aquaman and Quintana Roo (my company) were making suits that were not so different from the suits made 15 years afterward. In many cases, maybe most cases, I'd have chosen a 1993 QR over suits made almost 2 decades later. The rubber had not markedly changed (except in some cases for the worse) and the beauty of those old QR wetsuits was in the patterns. But then I had something back in 1993 that almost no one has had before or since in this business: my own wetsuit factory, with only one door between me in my office and my factory and pattern makers. It's easier to make and tweak wetsuits when your pattern makers are 50 feet from where you work.
That said, since 2010 I think wetsuits have gotten incrementally better. The biggest impediment to wetsuit design has been the lack of R&D facilities at the offices of wetsuit manufacturers. The pattern making and the expertise behind it has all been exported to China or Thailand. But, that's largely the way it is with bikes too. What makes wetsuits different is that glued & blindstitched wetsuit patterns are a black art. Very few people know how to properly craft the patterns for this kind of wetsuit. If there are a dozen top triathlon wetsuit brands today, maybe half are run by people who truly understand the benefit of this kind of construction. And if you don't understand what a glued suit allows you to do you can't exploit that style of construction and make a truly great suit.
The ubiquity of wetsuits is due to these Asian factories cracking the code. There are a half-dozen factories in the Orient that can reliably produce a triathlon wetsuit. Twenty years ago, not so. A large mail order company tried to compete with us with a cut-rate wetsuit made in Thailand, but we knew what they didn't know: you'd better climate control your factory or your seams will come unglued. They lost an entire season of production. All their wetsuits fell apart.
Now the Asian suits are the least likely to fall apart, because the adhesives used in making wetsuits are not available stateside, and certainly not in California. I shudder to think what the conditions are for workers in the factories using and breathing these adhesives, but your wetsuit's seams are certainly bonded for life. Further, while many brand managers in the West may not understand the intricacies of glued wetsuit construction, many pattern makers in these Asian factories do.
I remember hosting a Taiwanese factory representative back in the mid-90s, and he looked at the wetsuits we made and remarked of a particular technique we used, "You cannot do this in a wetsuit. It's not possible." I replied that we, nevertheless, were doing it. He was looking at it. "Yes, but it's not possible. You cannot do it." That was the quality of the conversation. Today I feel a little bit like that Taiwanese factory representative when I look at some of the wetsuits made today. With this one, ROKA, and I marvel at the care and features that go into these suits.
ROKA makes two suits, the Elite and the Pro, the Pro being the top of the line. The suits are made with every feature that you would consider important in a wetsuit to keep the wetsuit together. The zipper, zipper base, neck, the terminus of the wetsuit at the feet and hands, the back of the lower leg, these are all the places a wetsuit fails. It's amazing what people will do to their wetsuits. (We once had a retailer in San Francisco, not even remotely connected to sport, what they did to our wetsuits was... on second thought, never mind.)
What you want in a suit is suppleness, ductility, freedom, resistance to water entry, but you want that suit to be built like a tank at every stress point. The ROKA suits have that. But what makes these suits technically different? Or arguably better? They are built to improve body position during the swim. They do this in two ways.
First is in the placement of wetsuit thicknesses and high-float panels in places where that float is needed. And not where it's not. Is this new? No. We were doing this at QR pretty much from the beginning. But not every company understands how the swim is conducted in a wetsuit in a triathlon. There's a way wetsuits want to be used in triathlon. There's a technique, not quite the same as how you'd swim in the pool. The shrewd wetsuit maker will build his suit to work with a swimmer while in the open water. The second imperative of good wetsuit makers is core body control. The most aggressive technical elements to a wetsuit in this regard that I've ever seen are in the Aqua Sphere suits. But all the fastest suits I've ever used grip me from the thighs to the sternum, like a girdle. The ROKA is built what this feature in mind.
Here's the up- or downside of this suit. Its size MT (Medium Tall) was built using Jesse Thomas as a blueprint. This is Jesse, former elite runner. Other ROKA athletes are Jordan Rapp who I swear has no part of his mass further than 3 inches from the surface; Mario Mola, whose max-distance-to-skin metric is smaller than Jordan's; Gwen Jorgensen (MDTS is smaller yet); Javier Gomez and other jackrabbits. I am not a jackrabbit. Maybe I used to be, 30 years ago. Not now.
And I understand this. When I was a wetsuit maker I built QR's Medium Small to fit me. That suit also fit Mark Allen, Scott Molina, Scott Tinley and a lot of others and the pattern wasn't generous. We eventually had to build a whole range of sizes for those who were not built like the prototypical 6'1", 155 to 160 pound man of steel.
Likewise the way these suits are designed to work, and for whom they're designed to work. They do not have as much float in the chest as other suits, rather the premise is to float what typically sinks. Such as thighs. You can see in the ROKA suits a panel – a longitudinal strip – right down the front of the suit. That's a 5mm panel of rubber. On either side of that panel, and above the stomach, the rubber thins out immediately to, as well as I can tell, 1.5mm. This is bonded to the 1.5mm arms. (This is the technique the Taiwanese factory announced is not possible: gluing and blindstitching 1.5mm panels to each other.) This is a "good swimmer" feature. In my experience poor swimmers just benefit from a big slab of rubber everywhere. I therefore think these wetsuits are – fitwise and featurewise – built for fitter, faster athletes rather than the BOPers.
One more story about this company. The ROKA guys impressed me with something they wrote to me privately, in passing, without any knowledge of "my" catch panel backstory. "We removed the catch panel on the Elite model because we're not convinced it's better than plain neoprene," they told me. So, short story if you don't mind. It was 1993 or 1994, nobody had ever put a catch panel in a wetsuit. We did. It was cool. It was sexy. I took it to Interbike, sold the living spit out of it to all our dealers. But something was nagging at me. I had not tested this feature. I just assumed it was faster. It made sense. It could not be anything but faster. Still, I took the suit down to the pool with an identical suit having no catch panel. The suit with the catch panel was not only not faster, it was slower. Markedly slower, by 1.5 seconds per 100 meters. I went down to the pool again, with another swimmer (ex pro triathlete turned ultradistance swimmer Paul Lundgren). Same thing. I watched Paul swim underwater, and it became immediately apparent what was happening: our panel caught air, and the swimmer could not shed the air from the panel during the extend phase of the stroke. Bubbles flew off the panel during the pull. So, I reluctantly spoke to all our retailers and announced we were pulling that new model out of our lineup, and why.
I'm not saying no catch panels work. Just that you have to test. And the Roka people obviously did. "Of course!" you say. Well, I'm pretty sure a lot of testing that should go on in this business does not go on. But, as to the ROKA folks, they do not even state that their catch panels in the Elite pull more water, rather than they improve proprioception, i.e., they help you retain the feel of the water. These catch panels are not made with any rubber at all, rather they're a run of swimskin material in the forearm, right where you'd pull water. This is another feature much more useful to the front half of the field than to the back half.
Honestly, I like the Elite arm as well or better than the arm in the Pro, because the Elite's catch panel requires a cuff at the wrist, so that the arm terminates with rubber rather than fabric to keep the suit watertight at arm entry. That cuff requires a stitch, and that stitch impedes stretch. That means the suit pops off rather than slides off when you're exiting the suit. It takes a time or two to get the hang of it. The Maverick Elite has no such catch panel and therefore does not require the cuff, and exiting the suit at transition is a more straightforward exercise.
The body language of ROKA wetsuits says to me that this line of suits is designed for those who are relatively lean – not skinny, because for every tall size they have a corresponding size for mesomorphs, but lean. The features are built for good swimmers, or those who seek to be good swimmers. The closer you are to the pointy end of the spear, the more the ROKA suits will appeal to you. The Maverick Pro sells for $799, the Elite for $499 Maverick Pro Sleeveless for $449.
Are you interested in ROKA suits solely because of their speed in the water? This is your primary reason? Then don't buy the Sleeveless. Don't buy anybody's sleeveless. It's a slower suit. If your sleeveless is faster than your fullsuit, you just have a bad fullsuit. Don't argue with me.
The sweet spot in this lineup is the Maverick Elite. I tested TYR's Freak against its Hurricane 5, and I could not find a whit of difference in speed. Pretty much the same thing here. The Mavericks are fast suits, but unless you're Brandon Marsh or can swim within 3 minutes of him in an Ironman (he's a 50-minute swimmer and part of ROKA's stable of athletes), I suspect the Pro's features may be lost on you.
How fast are these suits? I have a private stable of wetsuit testers upon whom I rely (in addition to my own testing). The ROKA is in the top-2 suits, speedwise, for every athlete in my testing stable. Depending on the tester Aquaman's Cell Gold was it's equal, in some cases the TYR Hurricane CAT 5, or the blueseventy B70 Helix. The ROKA is never clearly better than everything according to my testers, but always in at least a first-place tie. But remember, my testers live in lane-1, at the sharp end of the swim. They should like these suits.
This company also offers a 30-day return policy. Do yourself a favor, with this or any wetsuit you buy: Do not write your name in the suit, on that white ink silkscreen, until you know the suit is one you want to keep. Writing your name on these wetsuits is usually a return invalidator. Here's more about ROKA's wetsuits.