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US Speedskating gambles on new suit, loses big

By Paul Newberry

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15 2014 11:30 a.m. MST

U.S. Speedskater Jonathan Kuck warms-up wearing the old World Cup race suit, prior to the men's 1,500-meter race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. U.S. skaters are looking to bounce back from an awful start to their Olympics by slipping back into their old suits that should have been made obsolete by new high-tech gear.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SOCHI, Russia — When U.S. Speedskating hooked up with Under Armour to develop a new high-tech skinsuit that would revolutionize the sport at the Winter Olympics, the vision was gold, silver and bronze.

The result was a total debacle.

Right in the middle of the Sochi Games, the American skaters hastily switched back to the suits they wore during the World Cup season and at the country's Olympic trials in late December.

Not that it mattered.

Saturday was another bust for the U.S. at the speedskating oval. Brian Hansen finished seventh in the 1,500 meters — matching the team's best showing through seven events in Russia — and two-time silver medalist Shani Davis faded to 11th in what might've been the final individual race of an otherwise brilliant Olympic career.

"Maybe we would see different results if we could turn back the hands of time," Davis said, "but we can't."

How did it come to this?

The embarrassment of Suitgate can be traced to a process filled with a quest for secrecy but marred by questionable decisions, all of which came back to bite the U.S. program on the sport's biggest stage.

Kevin Haley, senior vice president of innovation for Under Armour, laid out a timeline for The Associated Press that began in 2011 with the development of a new suit that was supposed to give the Americans a decided technological edge. The company worked with Lockheed Martin to handle some of the testing, a partnership that added a bit of intrigue to the process. The aerospace and defense giant analyzed the suits using a CGI-like procedure in which sensors are attached to the body, producing what Haley called "an unbelievable amount of data." From there, Under Armour began wind-testing variations of the new suit using six different-sized mannequins.

Understandably, the athletes were excited to see what would come of so many bright minds trying to make them a suit that would provide less resistance, enabling them to go faster than ever.

"These people make F-16 jets," skater Patrick Meek said.

According to Haley, Under Armour's deal with U.S. Speedskating called for three suits to be delivered to each Olympic skater on Jan. 1, which is where things started to go wrong.

Sure, the skaters were involved in the development all through the process: trying on the suit, using it in training, offering suggestions and feedback. But secrecy seemed to be the primary concern, the U.S. fretting that other countries would swipe their technology if the suit came out too soon. The final version was completed about six weeks before the opening ceremony, which meant no one had a chance to compete in it before they arrived in Sochi.

That, said Davis, was a huge mistake.

"The best thing would have been to make sure that these suits were what the people said they were," he said, "so that we can actually know going into the races instead of finding out in one of the biggest races of our lives."

The Americans gambled that any unfamiliarity and kinks in the new suit would be overcome by the startling times it produced.

That turned out to be a losing bet.

Big time.

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