US speedskating medal shutout: Blame the uniforms?
SOCHI, Russia — As the disappointments mount for an American speedskating team with significant Olympic expectations, skaters such as Brittany Bowe, Heather Richardson and Shani Davis find themselves attempting to explain what might be inexplicable.
Namely, is it the user or the equipment?
For American skaters, the Sochi Games marked the debut of a new suit, the "Mach 39," designed by the apparel company Under Armour in conjunction with the defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
This was no ordinary suit, per its developers: Under Armour sold the Mach 39 as a game-changer — billing it as "the fastest speedskating suit in the world."
According to Under Armour, the silver textiles placed on the suit's inner thighs — the lone gray patch on an otherwise all-black uniform — are designed to reduce friction by 65%. Dimples were installed along the arms in an effort to reduce wind resistance, the same idea seen on golf balls, and a panel of mesh fabric added to the back in an effort to decrease overall body heat.
"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the most scientific suit in the whole world," Patrick Meek said Friday. "These guys made F-16 fighter jets. If they can invade Afghanistan and Iraq, they can build a speed skating suit."
The new suit was analyzed, planned and developed with a single goal: to cut tenths-of-a-second off American skaters' times, the sort of slight yet meaningful improvement that can mean the difference between gold and a spot off the medal podium.
Instead, the USA's best skaters have found themselves facing one of the worst Olympic performances in the country's history. With zero medals from the first six events, the American team needs a furious close to match its four-medal haul from the 2010 Vancouver Games — if only one medal to avoid the USA's first Olympic shutout in speedskating since 1984.
"There's a bit of a head scratcher where the team isn't performing as well as any of us hoped to," Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank said in an interview with 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. Look, when you're not performing, you look at everything. 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."
The Mach 39 has become a timely excuse for the USA's medal-free start for another reason: American skaters had not tested them out before the Sochi Games, instead using older suits throughout the World Cup season and during December's Olympic trials.
The Dutch, meanwhile, used their new suits both during the past World Cup season and during its own Olympic trials. The results suggest a comfort level lacking from the USA: Netherlands has claimed 12 medals, one off the single-Games record with another six events to go.
American coach Ryan Shimabukuro avoided comment on the suits after Friday's training runs, calling Under Armour a "great partner" for the USA's skating efforts.
"We're obviously trying to evaluate the variables that could be there, but nothing I'm going to go on record with," he said."
Another coach, Kip Carpenter, called "the human factor" the biggest variable in any event, not equipment.
"There's not an athlete out there who is slowing down a second per lap because of the suit they're in," Carpenter said. "What is it, a parachute on their back?"
To an athlete, American skaters are refusing to place culpability for an unsatisfactory start on the Mach 39.
"Not at all," Bowe said when asked if the suit played a role in her eighth-place finish in the women's 1000m. "There's hundreds of variables that go into it. To try to pinpoint one thing is impossible."
Nonetheless, some are making adjustments to their equipment on the fly.
After finishing seventh in the 1000m — a race she entered as the top-ranked skater in the World Cup circuit — Richardson admitted to asking for slight alterations to the mesh panel.
"They did adjust one part on the back, but it was just putting rubber over the mesh there," Richardson said, adding, "It had no effect, really."
One fact seems to buttress claims that something — even if not the suit — is slowing American skaters down. A common theme among the USA's strongest medal contenders has been a solid start followed by a sluggish close; in the women's 1000m, for example, Bowe sensed that she was losing pace during her second lap.
"I had a very fast opener for me, had a really solid first lap," Bowe said. "Was trying to hang in there on the last lap but I think I lost quite a bit of time on that last lap. When I looked up at the board I thought it was going to be a faster time."
Said Davis of his eighth-place finish in the men's 1000m, "I felt fast in the open, but after that, I don't know. I have to look at the film and see. I'm not shocked; I'm very in tune with reality. But I'm disappointed."
But one factor might carry more weight than the Mach 39. Sochi's Adler Arena is a low-altitude course, meaning air resistance is greater than at high-altitude ovals like the one in Salt Lake City where American skaters train.
It's in Utah that the USA's top skaters have posted their personal bests. Davis's world-record times in the 1000m and 1500m came in Salt Lake City in 2009; Bowe and South Korea's Sang Hwa Lee set world records in the 1000m and 500m, respectively, during back-to-back days in Salt Lake City last November.
"Training at Salt Lake City we're at higher altitudes where the ice is faster, we have a little more glide," Bowe said, "but that's just something we need to adjust to here in Sochi."
Adjusting will be one part of America's quest for Olympic redemption during the second half of events. Optimism might be the other, Davis said.
"I'm honestly being as optimistic as I can possibly be," he said. "I'm just staying focused on the 1500m race. Suit or no suit, I've got to go out there and try to win."
Women's 30km Free Mass Start
Men's 5000m Relay Finals