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Dressed for success

Lockheed Martin and Under Armour produce a speedskating suit they claim is vastly superior to others before

January 16, 2014|Jared S. Hopkins

The locker room in suburban Salt Lake City was secured by a password-locked door. Cellphones were prohibited. Those entering pledged in writing 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. What was cloaked in such mystery was the new speedskating suit for the Sochi Olympics.

So secret was the research and development, Olympic skaters got a peek only a few weeks ago. The public unveiling comes this week.

"You feel fast -- the way it moves, the way it feels, the way it sounds," first-time Olympian Patrick Meek said. "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 in which the difference between winning gold and being an afterthought can be less than a second.

Three men's races at the Vancouver Games in 2010 were decided by less than a second. At the recent Olympic trials, four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis beat Brian Hansen 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 speed and an early product line at Under Armour, consists of five materials. After analyzing how air interacted with skaters, engineers tested more than 100 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 increases airflow and reduces body heat. Tiny dimples on the back of the hood, strips on the shoulders and veins around the calves make the suits slippery in the wind. A slick fabric inside the thighs reduces friction by 65% compared with 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 skintight suits are black, another departure from Team USA's 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 monthly in Salt Lake City with national program skaters. 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 this 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 London Olympics in 2012, full-body swimsuits were banned after records fell in the 2008 Beijing Olympics 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.

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 the developers are right, Richardson and her teammates' ultimate triumph will come in Sochi, on the podium.


Twitter: @jaredshopkins

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