SOCHI, Russia — In the wake of disappointing results that have seen its speedskaters on the verge of their worst Olympic performance in three decades, U.S. Speedskating may change the one factor it controls — its race suit.
Under Armour heralded the Mach 39 — the much-hyped suit the apparel company developed with the help of defense contractor Lockheed Martin — as the fastest speedskating suit in production.
In Sochi, U.S. speedskaters have yet to win a medal.
On Thursday, U.S. Speedskating took steps to cover a meshed area on the back of the suit worn by Heather Richardson, the top-ranked women’s skater in the world who finished seventh in the 1,000 meters. The mesh was designed to vent body by Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports apparel brand, but some worried it was creating drag.
By Thursday evening in Sochi, officials with the U.S. national governing body were working to get approval to race in skin suits worn during World Cup competition. Six events remain on Sochi’s speedskating calendar.
Like the Olympic suits, the World Cup suits also are produced by Under Armour. Some skaters brought their old suits with them to Sochi. The rest would have to be delivered.
“I know everyone’s working around the clock to try and fix the problem,” said athlete Brian Hansen, who already skated in the 500 and 1,000 meter races. “If the entire U.S. team is underperforming compared to our potential — literally everyone — you can only look at so many factors. Is it the suit? Is it our preparation?
“The suit’s the easiest thing to fix.”
Kevin Haley, a senior vice president with Under Armour, said in a statement: “We are committed to providing Team USA with the best possible gear, and Mach 39 is the most scientifically advanced and rigorously tested suit ever featured in Olympic competition. While a multitude of factors ultimately determine on-ice success, many skaters have posted personal-best sea-level heat times, split times or race times this week, and we're rooting for that to translate into medals over these next couple of days.”
In a statement, Ted Morris, executive director of U.S. Speed Skating, said many factors determine Olympic success.
“The evidence does not suggest that the suits have contributed to the disappointing results to date,” Morris said. “We're working with our athletes, coaches, trainers and Under Armour to figure out what we can do to produce better results for Team USA at these Winter Olympic Games.”
But U.S. Speedskating president Mike Plant confirmed replacing suits is being considered. He downplayed the potential change, likening the situation to changing skiing equipment in the middle of competition.
“We have a lot of people asking a lot of questions about what the best combinations is for us now,” Plant said. “No decision yet.”
When asked if suits will be replaced, Hansen’s coach Nancy Swider-Peltz — who is not part of the national team coaching staff — said, “there was working being done” for old suits to be used in Sochi.
After six events — three each for men and women — the best finish for the United States is Richardson’s seventh place in the 1,000. On Wednesday, Shani Davis — the world’s top-ranked men’s skater — finished eighth, well off his world-record and ending his bid to become the first American man to win three consecutive golds in the same Olympic event.
Two days earlier, Tucker Fredricks, considered the top pure sprinter in the U.S., finished 26th in the 500.
“We’re disappointed with the way we’re performing,” Plant said.
The suit unveiled for Sochi was not used in competition prior to the Games.
Working in partnership with Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, Under Armour relied on computer modeling based on filming the athletes and hundreds of hours of wind tunnel testing to design the new skinsuit. The skaters tested versions of the suits over the past two years, but didn’t see the finished product until after making the Olympic team in December’s U.S. trials.
Under Armour claimed that its Mach 39 outperformed Nike’s Swift Suit that debuted for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The company told skaters the new suits were designed specifically for conditions inside Adler Arena Skating Center, with features like dimples to make the suit slippery in the wind and a slick fabric inside the thighs to reduce friction.
In an email to The Baltimore Sun after the U.S. team landed in Sochi but before competition started, Richardson talked about the importance of having the right suit and called the Mach 39 “revolutionary.”
“It's all about having the fastest suit,” Richardson said. “You want the skin to fit as tight as possible but comfortable enough to move your arms and legs, of course.”
One marketing expert said Thursday he didn't believe questions raised over the suit would hurt the Under Armour brand.
“It's not a type of clothing material that's purchased by the mainstream consumer, and I don't think most Olympics fans would associate Under Armour with the reason the athlete is not medaling,” said Matt Saler, director of sports marketing for Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE.
“I still think Under Armour associating themselves with the speedskaters makes a lot of sense from a global brand awareness perspective,” he said. “Ultimately, it still comes down to the athletes to win.”
The U.S. has won 85 medals in speedskating and short-track, the most in any Olympic sport for the country. The last time the U.S. failed to medal in speedskating? Sarajevo Winter games, 1984.
“With this skin suit we don’t have any results from it — at least not any positive results,” Hansen said.