When they race this month at the Olympics, U.S. speedskaters will suit up in skin-tight, high-tech uniforms that research shows could make a measurable difference in their speed.
In a quest to create the world's fastest suit for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, two iconic Maryland companies, Under Armour and Lockheed Martin, created a unique collaboration. Already a supplier for the team, Baltimore's hometown sports apparel brand turned to the Bethesda-based defense and aerospace giant to help it fashion the most aerodynamic suit possible, using computer modeling based on filming the athletes and hundreds of hours of wind tunnel testing.
"We feel going in to Sochi, we have the fastest suits in the world," said Ted Morris, executive director of US Speedskating, the governing body for the Olympic sport. "That's an advantage from a performance standpoint, and a huge advantage from a psychological standpoint."
Under Armour also is supplying uniforms and training outfits for the U.S. bobsled and skeleton and Canada snowboard teams. With a global platform like the Olympics, the company hopes for a bump in sales and, more importantly, to reinforce its mantra of "making all athletes better" in the minds of consumers.
"This isn't about putting a product on a speedskater and sales go through the roof," said Brad Dickerson, Under Armour's chief financial officer. "Will we get some additional traffic to the website? Sure. Will we get a lift in sales in the first quarter? Sure. It's more about the long-term perception of the brand being innovative."
Under development for two years, the suit — dubbed the Mach 39 — brings to mind the controversey stirred by the high-tech, full-body swimsuits embraced by Olympic swimmers several years ago but banned in 2009.
Under Armour insists the speedskating suits are legal and that it followed to the letter the specifications of the International Skating Union, the governing body for speedskating.
While the suits have been top-secret until recently, they've undergone intense scrutiny from both the skating union and the International Olympic Committee. Both approved the suit.
To design the suit, Under Armour's innovation department used high-speed cameras to capture skaters' movements and positions as they sped around the ice at the team's Utah training facility. Under Armour's team worked with Lockheed Martin engineers to analyze how air flows around the skater and determine key body positions.
Using that data, they created fiberglass mannequins in about a half-dozen positions, dressing them in various configurations of more than 100 materials to go through more than 300 hours of wind tunnel testing.
"There wasn't any one position to put a skater or mannequin in to test," said Kevin Haley, Under Armour's vice president of innovation. "We built six different mannequins that captured the most important positions."
They tested hundreds of textiles, materials and placements, and "we did not find one fabric that works fantastically well," Haley said. "That's why we went with different textiles placed on different parts of the body." Using raised dots and pinstriping, "you would think would add drag … but disturbing the air in specific zones can affect aerodynamics in a way that's very positive."
Under Armour says its new suits use "flow molding," polyurethane aerodynamic shapes and bumps that are molded — not sewed or glued — on just the right spots, which counterintuitively disrupts air flow around the athlete's body and enables faster speed. An "Armour Vent" is built into the suit's spine, offering "breathability." Slippery Armour Glide fabric in the thigh area helps reduce friction by as much as 65 percent. The brand's well known moisture-wicking fabric moves sweat away from the skin. And a specially designed stretch zipper runs at an angle across the chest, bypassing the throat.
The idea for the zipper occurred to designers watching how speedskaters tended to pull down zippers at their throat because they became uncomfortable. And that slowed them down by creating drag.
Even the pinstriping design on the black suits, inspired by hot-rod culture, was strategically placed to cut down on drag.
"Based on wind tunnel testing, the suits make a measurable difference per lap," Under Armour spokeswoman Danielle Daly said Friday, though the company is not releasing more specific details prior to the Olympics.
In one respect, all speedskaters at the Olympics will be at a slight disadvantage because, unlike hikers or runners, skaters can go faster at altitude than at sea level, said Robert Chapman, an assistant professor at Indiana University and an expert in exercise physiology and performance at altitude
"If Under Armour has a suit they think can help reduce air resistance by even a fraction of a second, if they truly have a suit that does do what they say and reduce drag, it could be enough to be the difference," Chapman said.
While Under Armour had been supplying the team suits for training and competitions for four years under an agreement with U.S. Speedskating, the idea for something revolutionary for the Olympics percolated along the way.
"We have teams that are traveling around the world every single year, so having a really strong uniform partner is incredibly important from a performance standpoint," Morris said. "They create a strong relationships with the athletes."
The decision to tap Lockheed Martin engineers grew out of a trip Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank took one year to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. While viewing advances in flat-screen TVs, the brand's founder thought "if we took 10 percent of the engineering know-how and focused it on the world of sports, what an incredible thing," according to Haley.
Lockheed Martin embraced the opportunity to help in a sport where fractions of a second matter.
"We're proud to support the U.S. speedskating team and look forward to seeing them on the medal stand in Sochi," wrote Gordon Johndroe, Lockheed's vice president of worldwide media relations, in an email.
The company worked with Under Armour to create a "computational fluid dynamics" model, which analyzed how the air flowed around the skaters, Johndroe said. The team used wind tunnel facilities at Lockheed Martin and the University of Maryland to test different materials and develop ways to reduce drag.
Regardless of the sport though, innovations in competitive sports apparel sometimes take hold and other times stir controversy.
The swimsuits were banned after some data suggested it changed the buoyancy of the athlete in the water.
"Most likely, the speed suit doesn't rise to that level," Chapman said. "It's not fundamentally changing something like an athlete's buoyancy."
In speedskating, effective advances in the skins tend to be copied once they appear at competitions, Morris said. But until now, Morris believes there hasn't been much separating the suits. That's why the Mach 39 was kept under wraps until the last minute.
"We didn't want people to see what we were doing and potentially mimic it," Morris said. "We're going into [the Winter Games] without any country being able to see these suits, and that has created the advantage. It won't be long before people will try and copy it.
Even the athletes, who tested various versions over the past two years, didn't get to see the finished product until the Olympic trials in Utah about a month ago.
"The feedback and reaction was overwhelming," Morris said. "The athletes were putting the suits on and feeling faster. That's just as important as them being faster."
He noted that the suits were designed to be the most effective at the specific altitude of Sochi. The 25-member team, including 17 long-track skaters and eight short-track skaters, arrived there Thursday, among them Under Armour-sponsored Shani Davis. The skaters were to start training on the ice over the weekend.
"The culture at Under Armour is to do it better than anybody else," Morris said. "They could have supplied us with the speed suit with the same technology that's been in suits for years and what every other country is using as well. But they invested a ton of resources into developing something that would be a game-changer."