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Star-Spangled and speedy

When Matt Strackbein was seeking inspiration for the U.S. Olympic Alpine Ski Team's uniforms, he thought back to his Maryland roots.

The suits, which will be worn by the team in Sochi, Russia, beginning this week, needed to convey patriotism.

They also needed to give the athletes a feeling of speed and power.

"What's patriotic, but also fast and dynamic?" said Strackbein, production manager for the Boulder, Colo.-based ski wear company Spyder Active Sports Inc. "The Star-Spangled Banner. The Olympics are a time when people are not afraid to literally wear the flag."

The 39-year-old Annapolis native started researching the history of the flag. He was struck by the fact that Francis Scott Key was looking at a reflection of the flag in the water before composing the poem that would become the national anthem.

"That's got to be one of the greatest sightings of our flag in history," said Strackbein. "I started thinking about what that would look like."

A deep blue field. Streaks of red. Bright flashes of stars.

Strackbein drew on these images as he created the designs, which were unveiled late last month.

The suits have an ombre effect, as the dark blue fades into white along the sleeves, waistband and legs — a representation of "the dawn's early light," Strackbein said.

Some of the suits worn for the downhill skiing competition feature more white to create a sense of unity between the skier and the snow-covered mountain.

"When it comes to racing, it's you and the mountain," he said.

Designing the suits involved a complex mix of aerodynamics, precise tailoring and even psychology.

The one-piece suits have stitching along the back to reduce drag. They are skintight, flexible enough to move with the skiers' bodies yet sturdy enough to retain their fit after several wearings.

"We test these ski suits in wind tunnels, the same way they test cars," said Strackbein. The skiers "get in a tucked position and we turn the wind up to 75 miles an hour."

The suits are fitted to the lines of the skiers' bodies.

"It's all about stretch," said Strackbein. "You don't want folds in the fabric."

A tight-fitting suit also acts as a compression garment, reducing fatigue and energizing muscles, he said.

Almost as important as the fit are the feelings that the suit evokes in the wearer, Strackbein said.

Since races are often won by a fraction of a second, skier's mentality can make the difference between victory and defeat, he said.

"When the athletes put them on, they have to feel like they look fast," he said. "A good deal of performance is mental."

While Spyder, one of the U.S. ski team's sponsors, has been outfitting the team for nearly a quarter of a century, this marks the first time that Strackbein has designed the suits.

After graduating from Broadneck High School, he had planned to become a chef, but his interest in cartooning led him to a career in graphic design.

He has worked in the apparel industry for a dozen years and started with Spyder seven years ago. Originally, he was responsible for translating designers' ideas into something that could be produced at factories. A little over a year ago, he was promoted to supervising the design of the suits, which, he stresses, is the product of a team effort.

When the Olympics air, Strackbein said, he'll be watching the ski team closely to see how the uniforms look in action.

"When we design them, it's a flat sketch," he said. "It will be really interesting to see the suit on an athlete going fast."

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