Sports
2:03 pm
Thu January 16, 2014

Will Team USA's High-Tech Speedskating Suit Pay Off In Gold?

Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 9:19 am

A years-in-the-making, top-secret engineering and design project for a superaerodynamic suit to be worn by U.S. speedskaters at next month's Winter Olympics was finally unveiled Thursday.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin and sporting goods company Under Armour released photos of the suit they're calling "Mach 39." It has been kept so tightly under wraps that the sport's governing body wouldn't even allow it to be worn at the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City.

What's so revolutionary about the uniform? It's a dark, clingy, full-body skin suit with a hood, same as any other speedskating suit. But unlike other suits, it's not made entirely of smooth, slippery fabric to reduce air drag.

Kevin Haley, vice president for innovation at Under Armour, says wind tunnel tests showed it was faster to disrupt the air the way a golf ball is designed. "We're putting little bumps or dimples onto the suit to disrupt the air in just the right places."

And there's another key change: Ever notice the first thing most speedskaters do when they finish a race? Pull off the hood and unzip the suit. Sometimes they even leave it slightly unzipped during a race. Turns out it's not to show off their bodies.

Haley says it's because that zipper sticks racers right in the throat.

"It was just uncomfortable — the way the zipper hit them was just uncomfortable," he says. "Of course you unzip it, and you open up the suit to the wind and everything else, and the suit turns into a parachute."

The zipper on the new suit runs diagonally across the chest. The suit also has an open mesh panel in the back to let out heat — along with now-common anti-friction fabric in the thighs.

The Chicago Tribune's infographic of the new uniforms notes that the Mach 39 suits are black instead of blue, the color traditionally worn by Team USA.

The suit will undoubtedly be compared with Speedo's full-body LZR swimsuit, which was introduced in 2008. Swimming's governing body banned the high-tech suit after scores of athletes who wore it shattered records, leading to accusations of "technological doping."

The team that designed the speedskating suit says it pored over the rules to avoid similar controversy.

"If we're allowed to go 5 millimeters above the surface of the fabric with a given technology and no further, then we went 4, just to be safe," Haley says.

Olympic gold medalist and NBC speedskating commentator Dan Jansen thinks the new suit will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Still, he says even small improvements matter.

"When a race is decided by hundredths of a second, sometimes a thousandth now, and you might look back and maybe you wouldn't know that's the difference — but there's a good chance that that would be the difference," Jansen says.

It remains to be seen whether the Mach 39 will provide an edge in Sochi — but if it does, only U.S. skaters will have it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. When it comes to the Winter Olympics and an athlete's chances of winning a medal, the odds favor speed skaters. That's because the sport is tied with cross country skiing for the most events, 12. As a result, a lot of energy has been spent trying to give U.S. skaters and edge and today, the sporting goods company Under Armour and defense contractor Lockheed Martin unveiled photos of a new speed skating suit.

As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, the suit hasn't even been used in a race yet, but the entire U.S. team will be wearing it in Sochi.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The new suit has been kept so tightly under wraps that the sport's governing body, U.S. Speed Skating, wouldn't even allow it to be worn at the Olympic trials last month in Salt Lake.

KEVIN HALEY: They want to keep the technology a secret for as long as possible so there's less time for people to try and knock it off.

ROBBINS: Kevin Haley is VP of innovation at Under Armour. Under Armour and engineers from Lockheed Martin designed what they're calling the Mach 39. It's a dark clingy, full-body skin suit with a hood, same as any other speedskating suit. Unlike other suits, it's not made entirely of smooth, slippery fabric to reduce air drag.

Haley says wind tunnel tests showed it was faster to disrupt the air the way a golf ball is designed.

HALEY: We're putting little bumps or dimples onto the suit to disrupt the air in just the right places.

ROBBINS: Another key change seems obvious in retrospect.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And flying in and he does get there.

ROBBINS: Ever notice the first thing most speedskaters do when they finish a race? They pull off the hood and unzip the suit. Sometimes they even leave it slightly unzipped during a race. Turns out it's not to show off their bodies. Well, maybe sometimes. Kevin Haley says it's because that zipper sticks racers right in the throat.

HALEY: It was just uncomfortable, the way the zipper hit them was just uncomfortable. Of course you unzip it, and you open up the suit to the wind and everything else, and the suit turns into a parachute.

ROBBINS: The zipper on the new suit runs diagonally across the chest. The suit also has an open mesh panel in the back to let out heat, that's new, along with now-common anti-friction fabric in the thighs. It's inevitable that the new speedskating suit will be compared with Speedo's full body laser swimsuit introduced in 2008.

Swimmers broke more than 100 world records in its first year. The swimsuit was eventually banned. Kevin Haley says skating suit designers scoured the rule book to avoid controversy.

HALEY: So if we're allowed to go 5 millimeters, you know, above the surface of the fabric with a given technology and no further, then we went 4, just to be safe.

ROBBINS: Olympic gold medalist and NBC speed skating commentator Dan Jansen thinks the new suit will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Still, Jansen says even small improvements matter.

DAN JANSEN: When a race is decided by hundredths of a second, sometimes a thousandth and maybe you wouldn't know that's the difference but there's a good chance that that would be the difference.

ROBBINS: Under Armour says it took two years to perfect the new suit. The company isn't saying how much it spent. If it delivers in Sochi, it'll be great publicity. Dan Jansen says he'll certainly be talking about it on TV.

JANSEN: Because it's a story, because it's something, that little edge, that not only the American team's going for, but other teams as well.

ROBBINS: We won't know how much of an edge, if any, the Mach 39 provides until the Olympics begin. Whatever it is, for Sochi, only U.S. skaters will have it. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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