By Jared S. Hopkins, Tribune Olympic Bureau
10:21 PM EST, February 13, 2014
SOCHI, Russia — In the wake of disappointing results from speedskaters on the verge of their worst Olympic performance in three decades, US Speedskating is working to dump the most noticeable factor it controls — its racing suit.
Under Armour heralded the Mach 39 — the much-hyped suit the apparel company said it developed with the help of defense contractor Lockheed Martin — as the fastest speedskating suit in production.
In Sochi, U.S. speedskaters, among the world’s best in the sport, have yet to win a medal through half of their races.
In an attempt to improve their prospects, US Speedskating on Thursday covered a meshed vent along the spine of the suit worn by Heather Richardson, the top-ranked women’s skater in the world. She finished seventh in the 1,000 meters on Thursday.
Hours later, officials with the U.S. national governing body were working to get approval for American skaters to race in suits worn during World Cup competition, multiple sources told the Tribune. Six events remain on Sochi’s speedskating calendar.
A previous suit also designed by Under Armour was worn during World Cup races this season. Some skaters brought those old suits with them to Sochi; the rest would have to be delivered.
“I know everyone’s working around the clock to try and fix the problem,” said, Glenview’s Brian Hansen, who finished ninth in the 1,000 meters Wednesday. “If the entire U.S. team is underperforming compared to our potential — literally everyone — you can only look at so many factors. Is it the suit? Is it our preparation? “The suit’s the easiest thing to fix.”
US Speedskating President Mike Plant confirmed replacing suits is being considered but downplayed the potential swap, likening the situation to changing skiing equipment in the middle of competition.
“We have a lot of people asking a lot of questions about what the best combinations is for us now,” Plant said. “No decision yet.”
Added Ted Morris, executive director of US Speedskating: “The evidence does not suggest that the suits have contributed to the disappointing results to date. However, there are many factors that determine Olympic success, and we are constantly making adjustments to improve results.”
When asked if suits will be replaced, Hansen’s coach, Nancy Swider-Peltz — who is not part of the national team coaching staff — said, “there was work being done” to use the old suits in Sochi.
Under Armour’s Kevin Haley stood behind the new suit, saying in a statement: “The Mach 39 is the most scientifically advanced and rigorously tested suit ever featured in Olympic competition. While a multitude of factors ultimately determine on-ice success, many skaters have posted personal-best sea-level heat times, split times or race times this week, and we’re rooting for that to translate into medals over these next couple of days.”
Said Hansen: “They put all sorts of bells and whistles on the suit.”
U.S. skaters racing here have started out fast, based on splits. Most said afterward they were surprised by their poor times.
“I was on a killer (lap) the first six to 800 meters and then just kind of locked up,” said Brittany Bowe, the world-record holder in the women’s 1,000 who finished eighth in the event Thursday.
After six events — three each for men and women — the best finish for the United States is Richardson’s seventh place in the 1,000. On Wednesday, Shani Davis — the world’s top-ranked men’s skater — finished eighth, well off his world-record time, ending his bid to become the first American male to win three consecutive golds in the same Winter Olympic event.
Two days earlier, Tucker Fredricks — considered the top pure sprinter in the U.S. — finished 26th in the 500.
“For whatever reason, right now, we’re getting skunked,” U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro said. “I really don’t know. I’m at loss for words right now. Definitely didn’t expect (this). Competition writes its own story. ... Results are on the board.”
The suit unveiled for Sochi was not used in competition prior to the Games. Skaters didn’t see the finished product until after making the Olympic team in the U.S. trials in December.
“None of us were given a chance to race in it,” Hansen said. “With this skin suit, we don’t have any results from it — at least not any positive results.”
Under Armour claimed its Mach 39 outperformed Nike’s Swift suit that debuted for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Under Armour also told skaters the new suits were designed specifically for conditions inside Adler Arena Skating Center, with features such as dimples to make the suit slippery in the wind and a slick fabric inside the thighs to reduce friction.
The suits weren’t the only change from routine before the Games.
Nearly the entire contingent of the 17 U.S. speedskaters spent 10 days before the Olympics training in Collalbo in the mountains of northern Italy.
The strategy is common: train at higher altitudes to prepare for competition at sea level. However, unlike the U.S. team’s indoor facilities in high-altitude Salt Lake City, the Italian track was outdoor and windy. It also did not have a stationary bike to warm up.
Shimabukuro defended the decision and said training was done there before the Turin Games in 2006. Other teams in Sochi also trained at Collalbo before these Games.
Speedskating competition takes a day off Friday. When the men resume Saturday in the 1,500, will Davis, Hansen and their teammates being wearing the Mach 39? Is the race suit the U.S. team’s biggest problem? “I’m not going to comment on that,” Shimabukuro said.
Whether U.S. speedskaters race in Under Armour’s current or old suits, it’s clear something isn’t working for them Sochi.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Bowe said. “Are we where we wanted to be? No. But that’s part of it and we move on from here.”
The U.S. has won 67 medals in speedskating, the most in any Winter Olympic sport for the country. The last time the U.S. failed to medal in speedskating? The 1984 Sarajevo Games.
The USOC did not return the Tribune’s request for comment.
Tribune reporter Philip Hersh contributed.
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