PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For the U.S. Olympic speedskating team, there’s probably only one way to describe the 2014 Sochi Games.
“Disaster,” said Mitch Whitmore, the 28-year-old speedskater who’s prepping for his third Olympics.
They came to those Winter Games with a high-tech, cutting-edge speedskating suit that was supposed to give the Americans permanent residence on the Olympic podium. Instead, they failed to win a single medal for the first time in 30 years.
The 2014 Games were such a debacle that the skaters abandoned Under Armour’s much-hyped suits midway through the competition. Still, Under Armour and USA Speedskating actually re-upped their partnerships before the Sochi Games concluded, and after four years of ironing out wrinkles and re-thinking their entire approach, the U.S. long track speedskaters say they enter these PyeongChang Olympics with a much better suit and much more confidence.
“It seems like everything is taken care of,” said Joey Mantia, who’s competing in his second Olympics. “We have everything we need. Basically, all of our staff has handed us all the tools that we need to get medals. It’s just up to us now.”
Said Whitmore: “We changed basically everything that we could.”
Skaters have no problem listing the myriad problems they had with the 2014 suits, dubbed the Mach 39: They were too tight, they felt heavy, they had an annoying air vent and the skaters received them only a couple of weeks prior to the Olympics. The end result: Sochi was an embarrassing experience for both USA Speedskating and the Baltimore-based performance apparel company.
When they all returned to the U.S., they started meeting, crafting a four-year plan on improving the suit and making sure the athletes were much more prepared for PyeongChang.
“It was an opportunity for us to regroup and reorganize as a company in terms of how we were going to support the Olympic initiatives,” said Clay Dean, Under Armour’s chief innovations officer
They settled on a multifaceted approach, but they knew improving on the Mach 39 suit was key. They wanted to identify every way it could be upgraded. Material? Aerodynamics? Fit? Breathability?
“Turns out, the decision was to really bring innovation to all of those areas,” Dean said.
They brought in the athletes from Day 1, fielding their complaints, getting their ideas and involving them in field testing. The suit kept evolving, and the final result, which the skaters began wearing last January, has been tested in wind tunnels and on the ice, and USA Speedskating, Under Armour and the skaters were all pleased with the final results.
“It’s the fastest suit we’ve ever tested,” said Shane Domer, the sports science director for USA Speedskating.
All but one of the 13 American long track skaters will be outfitted in the new Under Armour suit. With four Olympic medals to his name, Shani Davis is the most famous and accomplished of the bunch, and he was also among the most outspoken about the previous suit’s failings. His mother even filed an ethics complaint against USA Speedskating and the U.S. Olympic Committee over the Mach 39. He’s since signed a deal with Fila and will wear that company’s suit – similar in style and color to the Under Armour version – in the PyeongChang Games.
But USA Speedskating is convinced – not unlike four years ago, it should be noted – that it has the superior suit at its disposal. The new version is composed of three different materials, mostly a polyurethane coating that is light, thin and flexible. Dean likened it to a second skin.
“I think if the skaters could skate naked with ice skates, they probably would try to do that. They want these things to move just like their own skin,” he said.
The suit also features an asymmetrical design, intended to match the skaters’ form on the ice, not standing up. So it was designed to be optimal in a crouched position in which the skater is leaning forward and to the left. The right leg is longer then the left, the zipper has elasticity and the material should barely wrinkle. Every one has been custom-made to perfectly fit each skater’s body.
“Getting extra tenths and hundredths of second out of these suits was important,” Dean said. “But even more important, we wanted them to be comfortable in it, let them know that these will really perform at the level that’s needed.”
Improved apparel was only part of Under Armour’s mission this time around, and they’ve been working closely with USA Speedskating officials on other ways to impact performance. They talked together about sleep, recovery, training, travel and nutrition.
“We wanted to go deeper with our athletes and we really try to understand how we can make them better,” said Paul Winsper, Under Armour’s director of athletic performance.
The company began connecting the speedskaters with new technology. They measured heart-rate variability and brain wave activity to get a better understanding of how athletes respond to training. They studied readiness and helped customize training regimens on and off the ice. And they set up a training camp in California, bringing in Jen Voigt, a veteran Tour de France cyclist, to lead the group on long endurance rides, a Tai chi master to teach the skaters meditation and breathing techniques, a former Navy SEAL, who led team-building exercises, and also a sleep expert.
They even brought the Tai chi master — Mark Cheng, a martial arts instructor based out of Los Angeles – to PyeongChang where he’ll help skaters prepare and recover from races.
USA Speedskating wanted to eliminate any potential surprises in PyeongChang, so they visited the Olympic oval last year and measured the ice temperature, the ice thickness, the air conditions. Then they tried to mimic those conditions back in Milwaukee where the team trained.
“The end product is we have athletes who feel like they’re prepared,” Domer said.
They hope four years of preparation helps the team top the four medals won at the 2010 Games, maybe even get close to the seven won in 2006 or eight from 2002. Or considering recent history, perhaps a goal that’s a bit more modest.
“More than zero,” Whitmore, who’s hoping to improve on his 27th-place finish from Sochi, said with a laugh.