After a dominant World Cup season, U.S. speed skaters entered the 2014 Olympics not only with momentum, but with what the team called a “secret weapon:” sleek, black Under Armour racing suits it would wear in competition for the first time.
But from the start of the Sochi Games, the skaters underperformed — and soon some were complaining about the highly engineered Mach 39 “skins.” Midway through the games, they ditched the new suits for an older model.
The team failed to medal for the first time since 1984. But rather than abandon their partnership, U.S. Speedskating and Under Armour have doubled down.
The 2018 Winter Games open this week in Pyeongchang, South Korea. With new suits and a new approach, the speed skaters and their Baltimore-based outfitters are looking to write a happier ending.
Under Armour, which gives U.S. Speedskating $240,000 a year in gear and cash, calls the collaboration “unparalleled:” it includes not only the new red, white and blue suits, but also input and training from an eclectic group of advisers — a fitness guru, a Tour de France cycling veteran, a martial artist, a Navy Seal and a sleep expert — largely handpicked by the company.
During critical training periods, the company assembled the experts to analyze how the skaters work out, sleep, travel, breathe during competition and recover from stress.
“I haven’t seen anything this comprehensive,” said Clay Dean, Under Armour’s chief innovation officer.
Analysts say Under Armour’s involvement is a gamble. The Olympics will present an important moment for a company that last year saw its stock price plunge and endured consecutive quarterly losses.
Under Armour has targeted international sales as a significant opportunity for growth. Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, says the speed skaters’ poor showing in 2014 and the flap over Under Armour’s suits have ratcheted up the pressure on both.
“I think this year becomes a big deal for Under Armour,” he said.
The team left Tuesday for Pyeongchang. Opening ceremonies are Friday.
The speed skaters entered the 2014 Olympics after one of their most successful World Cup seasons ever. A month before Sochi, Under Armour provided the skaters the new Mach 39 skins — black with hot-rod stripes — developed with the Bethesda-based defense giant Lockheed Martin.
The team flopped. After capturing four medals in Vancouver in 2010 and seven in Turin in 2006, the skaters were shut out.
The short-track team, which wore a scaled-down version of the Mach 39 throughout the 2014 games, didn’t fare much better, winning just a single silver medal in a relay.
Some long-track skaters worried that a mesh panel in the back of the suit — designed as a vent for “breathability”— was creating drag.
“We went to the athletes after there was some chatter that they thought the suits weren’t necessarily helping them,” Ted Morris, executive director of U.S. Speedskating, told The Baltimore Sun recently. “By an incredibly narrow margin, they said they’d rather go back to the World Cup suits. My recollection is we went to the seven athletes who in our opinion still had an opportunity to medal. I think it was 4-3.”
Under Armour defended the suits. The speedskating federation gave the company a vote of confidence even before the 2014 Games were over by renewing its partnership with the brand for the 2018 and 2022 Olympics.
Three months after Sochi, Morris said an internal assessment found a host of problems, including an overly demanding travel schedule before the Olympics — but not the Mach 39 suits. He said the suits, along with a new skate blade polishing tool developed by a Lanham-based aerospace firm, should have been introduced to the athletes in the fall instead of the winter to give them time to adjust.
Team member Brittany Bowe, whose best individual finish was eighth in Sochi, said the suits fell victim to frustration and media banter.
“When we were given the Mach 39 we believed it would be the fastest suit out there,” said Bowe, 29, who is also on this year’s team.
Concerns arose after the team failed to medal in early races. Bowe said the athletes would walk through the media zone and hear chatter.
“When things snowball out of control you start to question everything under the sun,” Bowe said. “We heard it in the media. It’s unfortunate. Yes, it starts to raise questions, and everything is contagious one way or another.”
This year’s suits — which the athletes have been wearing for about a year — have no vent.
“We have breathability in our material,” Under Armour’s Dean said.
The suit combines three materials, including a proprietary fabric called H1, which runs down the arms and legs.
“It has a surface texture almost like fine sandpaper,” Dean said.
He said the roughness — like dimples on a golf ball — help the air smoothly attach to the limbs, minimizing drag.
The suit is distinguished by its seam running diagonally across the body instead of evenly across the waist. The idea is to allow more freedom of movement when the skaters push their right leg across their body on left turns around the ice oval.
“The threading goes the same way as we will in the turn,” said Bowe. “It doesn’t give me the sense I’m being pulled out of position.”
Under Armour said it doesn’t feel any additional pressure for the team to succeed than it normally would.
“Our reputation is on the line every day, in everything we do,” Dean said.
Under Armour says its apparel and gear will be used by more than 400 athletes in 14 sports and representing 16 countries. The list includes the U.S. bobsled team, which recently modeled its suits at Under Armour headquarters, and the Nigerian bobsled team — the first athletes to represent the African country in the Winter Games.
Demand for Under Armour products has slumped in North America, its largest market. The company is looking overseas, to China and other nations, for growth. That heightens the Games’ significance for the brand.
The Olympics are “an immensely important international stage for marketers, and the biggest and most well-known brands put a great deal of effort into planning and implementing their presence each set of Games,” said Alexa K. Fox, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Akron. “Relationships are long-term-oriented, so while individual events — like the speedskating skins issue in the 2014 Games — are important, it is the long-term journey between a brand and a consumer that is really critical.”
Jonathan Jensen, a professor of sports marketing at the University of North Carolina, says the effect of the speed skaters’ performance in Pyeongchang on Under Armour’s image could be limited.
“With the low-key nature of these Winter Olympics halfway around the world, I don't think that if the speed skating team has a great showing it will necessarily provide a big boost for the brand,” he said.
But he said Under Armour can “ill afford” a slip.
As the company developed the new suits, it went further than usual in immersing itself in the speed skaters’ world.
Under Armour helped U.S. Speedskating assemble a team of experts to train the athletes at a grueling camp in Northern California’s wine country last May.
The team included Paul Winsper, a Portland-based Under Armour vice president and fitness expert who worked for years with Newcastle United of the English Premier League, and German cyclist Jens Voigt, a veteran of the Tour de France and other major races.
Voigt led the skaters on bike rides of up to 90 miles, past vineyards and wildflowers and along the Pacific coast.
“Some of them were pushing Jens pretty hard,” Winsper said. “When they hit the long, flat parts and [long tracker] Joey [Mantia] puts his foot down, the guy can go.”
Also at the camp were a sleep expert with a history of working with English Premier League soccer players, a Navy Seal who conducted team-building activities, and Mark Cheng, a Los Angeles martial arts instructor and acupuncture expert who taught the skaters breathing exercises.
Cheng “took these guys through slow, intentional movements that were very much tai chi,” said Shane Domer, U.S. Speedskating’s sports science director. “We did it on a field and they were barefoot and it was very quiet. It started with walking slowly and controlling the center of gravity as they move from one step to the next. We want them in a relaxed, focused state.”
Under Armour gave the skaters sleepwear designed to enhance athletes' recovery. The pajamas employ technology based on research into the effects of far infrared radiation.
Cheng is accompanying the skaters to the Olympics. Joining them are Randy Harward, an Under Armour executive specializing in advanced apparel, and several other members of the company’s support group.
“They are primarily there to take care of any repairs,” Dean said.
Winsper, who worked closely with the skaters at the camp, has work to do in Portland and is staying behind.
“I just really want them to do well,” he said. “I’m already nervous. I’ll be watching with a pillow over my head.”
The speed skaters weren’t the first Under Armour endorsers to receive more than just products or money.
Skier Lindsey Vonn said the company is assisting with personal details in Pyeongchang.
"They're actually helping me get a chef," said Vonn, a 2010 Olympic gold medalist in downhill.
Under Armour is increasingly working with the teams it sponsors — it cited Notre Dame and UCLA — on techniques to help the athletes train more effectively. Nike, the sports apparel industry leader, also emphasizes sports science.
“It was [Under Armour executive] Kevin Haley’s brainchild that we could really get closer to our athletes,” Winsper said. “Speedskating helped create the model.”