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Will new suit revolutionize speedskating?

The locker room in suburban Salt Lake City was secured by a password-locked door. Cellphones were prohibited. Those entering signed a guarantee they wouldn't share information.

Waiting inside was the result of more than two years of work by an athletic apparel company aided by a defense contractor, Under Armour's new speedskating suit for the Sochi Olympics that open in 22 days.

So secret was the research and development, Olympic skaters got a peek only a few weeks ago. The public's will come this week.

"You feel fast — the way it moves, the way it feels, the way it sounds," said first-time Olympian Patrick Meek, who is from the Chicago suburbs. "The way it smells is fast."

In today's Olympic sports, athletes' equipment is crucial to how well they perform. Under Armour — which partnered with Lockheed Martin — is making big claims about its suit as the fastest ever, an aerodynamic weapon in a sport where the difference between capturing gold and missing the podium can be less than a second.

That's not an exaggeration.

Three men's races at Vancouver's Games in 2010 were decided by less than a second. At the recent Olympic trials, four-time Olympic medalist and Chicago native Shani Davis edged Brian Hansen of Glenview by a hundredth of a second.

"The big thing here is we approached everything through our mission, which is to make athletes better," said Kevin Haley, Under Armour's senior vice president of innovation. "If we can make them more comfortable, we can make them perform better."

Which is precisely the idea: limit fatigue, stay stronger, go faster.

The Mach 39 — a name that nods to both speed as well as an early product line at Under Armour — consists of five materials. After analyzing how air interacted with skaters, engineers tested more than 100 different textiles and about 250 configurations of textiles. Skaters described the process as trial and error.

"Suits have literally just ended up in the garbage and people start from scratch," said Meek, who participated in the development of the suits.

A vent along the spine is there to increase airflow while reducing body heat. Tiny dimples on the back of the hood, strips on the shoulders and veins around the calves all are designed to make the suits slippery in the wind. A slick fabric inside the thighs reduces friction by 65 percent compared to previous suits, the company said.

"When the wind is coming around your shoulders, we don't want that wind coming back and hitting the back of your arm," Mark Cumiskey, director of materials at Under Armour, told nearly 40 skaters and coaches inside the locker room. "When it's coming over your head, we don't want it circling underneath and hitting the back of your head."

The skin-tight suits are black, another departure from Team USA's Navy blue worn in previous Games.

"For years and years, speedskating suits have used the same material over and over again," Cumiskey said. "We weren't satisfied."

Lockheed Martin — armed with its expertise in aerospace and fighter jets — and Under Armour met with national program skaters monthly in Salt Lake City. Skaters were outfitted with motion capture technology to gather data and create six mannequins imitating skaters' positions.

Mannequins were outfitted with prototype suits and spent more than 300 hours in wind tunnels at Lockheed Martin and at the University of Maryland, where Under Armour founder Kevin Plank played football.

Technology has transformed speedskating before, with the advent of clap skates that became widespread in competition by the 1990s and are now used by all long-track skaters.

Will Under Armour's suit cause similar change?

"There is no question in my mind that this is the fastest speedskating suit ever made and it will be the fastest speedskating suit, period," Meek said. "Like, it's going to be banned right away."

That wouldn't be without precedent. In the most-recent Summer Games in London, full-body swim suits were banned after records fell in the Beijing Games and other competitions.

But speedskating is a niche sport — its national governing body has about 2,000 members — that lacks mass appeal in the United States outside the Olympics. Under Armour says its suit is designed for elite athletes and conditions inside Adler Arena Skating Center in Sochi, Russia.

Under Armour wouldn't share wind tunnel data but told skaters the suits outperformed Nike's Swift Suit that debuted before the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.

"Consistently, this suit in every mannequin configuration creamed the Swift Suit. It wasn't close," Cumiskey told the skaters. "We feel confident this is a faster suit."

Back in that Utah locker room a few weeks ago, Olympian Heather Richardson modeled the suit. When Cumiskey praised the zipper's stretching ability, a few skaters playfully shouted, "Prove it!"

The 2010 Olympian crouched over, swinging her arms, skating without moving. Applause and playful hoots followed — a success.

If Under Armour is right, Richardson and her teammates' ultimate triumph will come in Sochi, on the podium.

Twitter @jaredshopkins

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