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US Speedskating gambles on new suit, loses big

Feb. 15, 2014 7:28 AM EST

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

The result was a total debacle.

Midway through a Winter Games that so far had been a bust for the American skaters, everyone is switching back to the suit they wore during the World Cup season and at the U.S. Olympic trials in late December.

The embarrassing change of course can be traced to a process filled with secrecy and questionable decisions - all of which came back to bite the U.S. program on the sport's biggest stage.

"There are still some concerns," U.S. coach Matt Kooreman said Saturday morning after a training session, while Under Armour was still hurriedly trying to modify the old suits so they would comply with International Olympic Committee regulations on sponsorship logos. "We are basically figuring out what our best options are."

How did it come to this?

Kevin Haley, senior vice president of innovation for Under Armour, laid out a timeline for The Associated Press that was largely conducted behind closed doors. 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 process in which sensors are attached to the body, generating 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.

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 the biggest races of their lives.

"It's not like we opened a package and all of a sudden there was a new suit we had never seen before," Meek said. "I think we were playing a game where we were trying to hide the technology. That's not a bad thing. I think that's a really smart thing."

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.

Through the first six events at Adler Arena, no U.S. skater had finished higher than seventh. Among the big-name flops: two-time gold medalist Shani Davis and female stars Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe.

While Under Armour touted the "Mach 39" as the "fastest speedskating suit in the world" - and the skaters dutifully spouted the party line before the Olympics - there were doubts about the suit. Some complained about it being too tight and restricting their breathing. The man who designed the Dutch team's new suits said he had already tried some elements in the American version and found they didn't produce any noticeable improvement; in fact, he thought one feature might slow them down.

After the first four events in Sochi, it was clear within the team that something was wrong, even though the Americans weren't necessarily expected to win a medal in any of those races.

For the men's 1,000 on Wednesday, one U.S. skater - Haley wouldn't say who - skated in a slightly different version of the new suit, essentially for testing purposes. There was no significant improvement in the time. Davis finished eighth, ending his bid to become the first male speedskater to win the same event three straight times.

On Thursday, when Richardson and Bowe competed in the women's 1,000, more desperate measures were taken. A vent on the back of Richardson's suit was covered up. Again, there was no significant improvement, as Richardson finished seventh and Bowe eighth in an event they had dominated through the World Cup season.

With no competition at the oval on Friday, the Americans decided enough was enough.

They received permission from the International Skating Union to go back to the Under Armour suit they used before the Mach 39.

It was a huge blow to U.S. Speedskating, maybe even worse for Under Armour after its grand claims.

"That's marketing. People wanted to make their product stand out," Kooreman said. "And when you don't live up to that expectation, you get it thrown back at you pretty harshly."

The debacle was complete.

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rcohn95038 February 16 2014 at 11:00 AM

Perhaps the American skaters ought to go tot the Netherlands for a while, where they could learn how to skate! I was born there, and was skating at age 4 or 5; they are hard to beat, the Dutch!

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hawa410 February 16 2014 at 6:22 AM

It wasn't the suits that under- performed, but what was in them. And the weather conditions at Sochi can't be blamed either.

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nuttberry February 16 2014 at 11:21 AM

Exactly! We just can't come to terms with the fact that we are not always the best. Thinking that we are the best makes us complacent. It also makes us look bad losers when we come up with excuses like the weather, the conditions, or what we are wearing. Shaun White had an excellent attitude when he lost. Although bitterly disappointed in his own performance, he was genuinely very pleased for the winner and he also wasn't going to be drawn into the excuse arena when the American reporter asked him whether the condition of the half-pipe was to blame - "It's the same for all of us" was his response.

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combatcoatings February 16 2014 at 6:22 AM

Is it just a rumor that the same corporation responsible for the Obamacare web site was involved in the design of the new skating suits? that's just GOT to be a rumor, right?

"Remember Benghazi and ALL the Traitors!"

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parasjlp2 February 16 2014 at 4:19 AM

Shouldn't this, once and for all, prove that Under Armor is a CRAP product. You can't simply BUY your way into the performance apparel arena. This brand plastered it's name all over the NFL, when it was a sport dying in viewer market share, and monopolized the low, middle & mass market sporting chains like DICK'S Sporting Goods, and spent a boatload of advertising money brainwashing young school age athletes to think that Under Armor should be respected within the same class as Great companies like NIKE, which has spent decades focussing on design and innovation. When NIKE and Speedo transformed sports technology at other recent olympics, their products truly were 'revolutionary' and they actually stood up to the R & D, invested. I feel so bad for the Olympic athletes who had to wear this crap, but I'm so thrilled this happened to U.A. (Please stop buying Under Armor's "BS" and lets keep their "junk" products in the discount market next to the outdated Zebra print "Zubaz" pants, Gold's Gym Tank Tops, metallic wrap-around sunglasses and Turf shoes) - Under Armor is totally "WHACK"

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settiguy February 16 2014 at 5:59 AM

Comment here brought to you by the CEO of Nike Corporation, the sponsors of Lance Armstrong ?

Lets all consider the source.

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gonro2 February 16 2014 at 3:55 AM

Hey evr think that perhaps you may have been outskated?

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The Great "1" February 16 2014 at 3:04 AM

Wow and I'm an Under Armour guy!

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hedunlap February 16 2014 at 1:43 AM

Sounds like the skaters are taking a lesson from our leader.....blame your short comings on someone or something else.

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RETIRED LADY!! February 16 2014 at 1:22 AM

Yes, uniforms can make a difference-- just ask swimmers about the new/faster swimsuit (or think of the time differences when they went from traditional suits to wetsuits & wore caps). Ski jumpers' gear is regulated so that material is sufficiently 'fitted' in the underarms, crotch, etc. so that they can't get added draft (lift, so-to-speak) from draped fabric. Also, I am disgusted with those who are slamming the athletes. Anyone at the top of his/her game, profession, talent deserves some measure of respect for what he/she achieved (I refer to the specific activity, not their human traits which don't necessarily match in the 'kudos deserved' category).

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timothyknerr February 16 2014 at 1:12 AM

It's clearly not the suit, but the person inside the suit. We have to stop this superior than anyone else attitiude in regards to the Olympics. Many other countries are just as, if not more capable of winning than us. I know it's nice to win a medal, but just getting to the Olympics is an accomplishment in it self.

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jaded13640 February 16 2014 at 2:01 AM

Not really. There are plenty of capable athletes that could compete. It's like female figure skaters. They're looks are more important than anything else. They get selected and not always for their physical ability to compete in the sport.

It may be true that "it's clearly not the suit" that caused them to loose. But if a suit is so tight that it restricts your breathing, that will effect your ability to perform. So "clearly" may not be so clear.

The marketing people overshot the mark. They could have touted it as the "most advanced speedskating suit ever made" or some like that. But to claim to be the fastest when it wasn't test...not their brightest move.

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nuttberry February 16 2014 at 11:13 AM

Yes, but they didn't win in the old suits either! If we would realize that there are other competitors out there that are as good as, if not better than us then maybe we would stop being so complacent. Remember the 'Dream Team"

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Yo Gary February 16 2014 at 1:09 AM

When they changed back to the "old suits", did they start winning medals? If not, it would seem that the competition is just faster than they are!...but let's use corporate America as a scape goat, seems to work in other contexts.

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