U.S. speedskating abandons new high-tech Mach 39 skin suits

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 5:50 p.m. MST

Shani Davis of the U.S. skates in the prototype of the official US Speedskating suit during a training session at the Adler Arena Skating Center at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. The team thought it had a chance to do something special, given some impressive World Cup results this season and new high-tech suits from Under Armour, which got an assist in the design from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Now, there's plenty of grumbling that the suits are actually slowing the skaters down in Sochi.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

SOCHI, Russia – Call it a wardrobe malfunction, but the Mach 39 speedskating skin suit is history.

The super high-tech skin suit designed by Lockheed Martin and Under Armour was supposed to make the most promising U.S. Speedskating Team in a decade even faster.

But after four miserable Olympic races, the experiment is over.

“For the remainder of the Winter Olympic Games, Team USA speedskaters will be wearing the previously approved Under Armour skin suits used during recent World Cup competition,” said Mike Plant, U.S. Speedskating president in a written statement. “Under Armour provided U.S. Speedskating with three different suit configurations in advance of Sochi, and we have full confidence in the performance benefits of each of them.”

Plant’s statement came a few hours after Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank defended the suit, but also acknowledged the situation was worrisome.

“There's a bit of a head scratcher where the team isn't performing as well as any of us hoped to,” Plank told Bloomberg Television. “We are sort of at halftime through the race and I think everybody's looking at it and saying what adjustments can be made."

Whether the problems are real or imagined, it’s apparently time for a substitution.

Murmurs began after two-time gold medalist Shani Davis failed to podium in the 1000 meters — a race in which he holds the world record and numerous World Cup victories and podiums.

Those rumblings swirled into controversy after the top two ranked female skaters, Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe, finished seventh and eighth, respectively, in the 1000.

“I really don’t know,” said head long track coach Ryan Shimabukuro after Richardson and Bowe failed to medal on Thursday. “I’m at a loss for words right now. Definitely didn’t expect that, so …The competition writes its own story. I don’t have to give a quote. The results are on the board.”

When asked about the skin suits specifically, he said, “I’m not going to comment on that. Under Armour has been a great partner of ours. We still have to toe the line and compete.”

He also didn’t want to comment on the fact that modifications were being made to the suits in the days before races.

One of the main issues may be that the suits were never tested in competition. Instead, creators used technology, including 300 hours of wind-tunnel testing on reinforced fiberglass mannequins, to test the suits.

Plank acknowledged in his interview with Bloomberg Television that when there are problems, everything is up for discussion.

“Look, when you're not performing you look at everything,” Plank said. “It begins with from training to the gear to the skates to the pillows that you slept on the night before. It's all very fair and this is our business. We believe we have an incredible product that can help our athletes to succeed and win."

While some skaters asked to use the old skin suits, others reportedly didn’t see it as the cause of the issues. At least one former Olympian agrees there may be other issues at work.

Gold medalist Dan Jansen told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that the ice in Kearns, Utah, is hard and provides a lot of glide for skaters. The ice in Sochi, however, is softer and doesn’t allow skaters to glide as much.

It is similar to the ice in Milwaukee’s Petit Arena, which is near sea level, and Jansen said it would have been to the skater’s advantage to train at least some of the time in Milwaukee.

Shimabukuro said coaches and skaters were looking at everything in trying to figure out what’s keeping some of the world’s best from the Olympic podium.

“Really right now you don’t try to make major adjustments,” he said. “You stay consistent with what your routine is.”

And while change may not be the normal route, it may certainly be the best option at this point.

“We didn’t expect this coming in,” Shimabukuro said. “Always at the Olympics the competition is fierce but when you’re No. 1 and 2 coming into the world and you finish seventh and eighth…”

The change comes the day before the last individual race for men, the 1500. It’s Davis’ last chance for an individual medal, and it’s a distance at which he already owns two silver medals.

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