Less than a week after failing to qualify for an individual event at the US swimming trials, Olympian Erik Vendt of North Easton filed a countersuit yesterday against a California company that claims he broke his contract by choosing to wear a rival swimsuit.
Vendt made his own breach-of-contract claims against TYR Sport in the federal lawsuit filed in California. He also sued the company for slander, alleging that comments made by its attorney, Larry Hilton, cost the swimmer other endorsement deals.
TYR went to federal court in May with an antitrust case that claims USA Swimming has been working with Speedo to ensure all Americans wear that company's LZR Racer suit at the Beijing Olympics, even if they have deals with other companies.
Also named in the suit were US head coach and general manager Mark Schubert, who has touted the benefits of the Speedo suit while also working as a paid spokesman for the company, and Vendt, who had an endorsement deal with TYR but switched to the LZR Racer this year.
At last week's trials in Omaha, Vendt said the lawsuit had taken a toll on his training and preparation. He was favored to claim one of two spots in the 1,500-meter freestyle, but struggled to fourth place in the final with a time more than 17 seconds slower than what he swam in the preliminaries.
Vendt did earn a spot in his third Olympics as a possible prelims swimmer in the 800 freestyle relay. He won silver medals at Sydney and Athens in the 400 individual medley.
Hilton said he couldn't comment on Vendt's allegations because he had not seen a copy of the counterclaim. The attorney did say TYR was surprised by the timing of the court filing, considering the company had agreed to Vendt's request for a delay until after the Olympics. A US District Court judge in Los Angeles put off the case until Sept. 15.
"We made an accommodation to Erik Vendt so he could train for the Olympics," Hilton said. "For them to come back and file this after they had asked us for a stay and we agreed to it and the court granted it is not consistent with the position they took - that Erik needed to be free from any litigation until after the Olympics."
In his counterclaim, Vendt says his contract with TYR allowed him to wear a competitor's suit if the company failed to provide one of similar quality. He also says TYR failed to develop a new generation of suit between the 2004 Athens Olympics and last year's world championships in Australia, falling behind Speedo and other competitors.
"In 2007, Vendt became concerned about the quality of the competition swimsuits provided to him by TYR," the lawsuit says. "In particular, the TYR swimsuits cut Vendt's back and tore at the seams and zipper."
Vendt, according to the court filing, was convinced that TYR's suit was not as competitive as the one introduced by Speedo, the FS Pro, before last year's world championships. Vendt claims to have done his own testing to compare the merits of each company's suit.
"As a result of the tests, Vendt determined that FS Pro had many advantages over the TYR suit in that it was more buoyant, more water repellent, and had more constriction around the thighs and chest/torso area," the lawsuit says. "Vendt's own tests confirmed his view that wearing the FS Pro swimsuit provided a distinct advantage over the best available TYR suit."
In February, Speedo unveiled its next generation of suit, the ballyhooed LZR Racer, crafted with help from NASA. Since then, 51 world records have been broken or equaled - 47 by swimmers wearing the LZR.
Vendt notified TYR Jan. 14 that he would invoke the clause in his contract that allowed him to wear another company's suit while still remaining under contract to TYR, according to the lawsuit. It says TYR responded by terminating its deal with Vendt three days later. The swimmer claims he is still entitled to his base salary of $80,000 a year from TYR.