Friday, March 23, 2018

U.S. Speedskaters Modify Their Suits,

Joey Mantia in the new Under Armour suit that United States speedskaters will wear at the Pyeongchang Games. CreditUnder Armour
The speedskaters summoned to Santa Rosa, Calif., last spring for the United States Olympic team’s annual strength and conditioning camp found a curious item on their schedules: a tai chi lesson.
Unsure of how the skaters would react, Shane Domer, the team’s sports science director, watched the first session with some apprehension.
“We were like, ‘O.K., this could go south,’ ” Domer said with a laugh. “Our guys could make fun, or not buy in.”
But the skaters took to it, and soon Mark Cheng, the tai chi instructor, became a regular presence around the team. When the group departs later this month for Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the start of the 2018 Games, Cheng will be part of the official traveling party.
U.S. Speedskating has embraced this and other outside-the-box ideas in a bid to return to glory after a disastrous showing at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Perhaps just as notable has been the fact that many of these new ideas, including the tai chi sessions, have come directly from the apparel giant Under Armour, whose speedskating suit famously became a scapegoat for the American team’s shortcomings four years ago.
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Rather than receding after that public relations catastrophe, Under Armour became determined to take a more hands-on approach in the team’s development. The company accounts for about 20 percent of the organization’s $1.2 million in sponsorship revenue — roughly on par with the federation’s other top sponsor, Toyota — but in this cycle Under Armour is providing resources and expertise in addition to money.
“Adversity is the best teacher,” Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s executive vice president for strategy, said about the company’s experience in 2014. “It forced all of us to realize that we actually needed to do more. We needed to expand our relationship.”
The hubbub over the suits began midway through the 2014 Games. The American speedskaters were scuffling and would ultimately fail to win a single medal. Soon questions arose about, and fingers were pointed at, Under Armour’s so-called Mach 39 suit, which had been developed with the help of Lockheed Martin and released with much fanfare. Some members of the American team came to believe that a set of vents on the back of the suit was letting in air — creating drag that was slowing them down.
Ted Morris, the executive director of U.S. Speedskating, said that a coach from another country planted the idea in one of the American skaters’ heads, and from there it infected the team like a virus. The issue exploded publicly when The Wall Street Journal published an article in which members of the team anonymously cast doubt on the suit’s technology.
Under Armour to this day has stood by the science of the suit, and U.S. Speedskating, in a post-Olympics review, determined that the suits were not the problem. Kevin Plank, Under Armour’s chief executive, at the time called the controversy “a witch hunt,” though he stopped short of ever criticizing the athletes.
Before the Sochi Games ended, though, Under Armour and U.S. Speedskating renewed their contract through the 2022 Olympics. Then they sat down to reimagine their working relationship. The stakes are high for Under Armour, which stumbled through a dismal 2017, reporting losses for two straight quarters and seeing its share price fall 45 percent.
“We basically did what I would call a performance audit,” said Paul Winsper, the vice president for athlete performance, who previously worked for Nike and multiple professional soccer teams. “We looked at their staffing. We looked at their technology. We looked at how we can help with training support, how we can help educate the athletes.”
Tai chi was just one part of the equation. Under Armour hired Jens Voigt, a German cyclist who competed in the Tour de France 17 times, to lead brutal bicycle workouts at the speedskaters’ conditioning camps in 2016 and 2017. It brought in Pete Naschak, a former Navy Seal, to lead team-building activities. The company supplied chefs and nutritionists to modify the athletes’ diets, and sleep specialists to tailor their nighttime rituals.
Shani Davis at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The United States team did not win a medal in those Games, and several team members raised concerns about their suits. CreditJames Hill for The New York Times
It has been a holistic relationship, Winsper said, “not just dropping products off.” Under Armour will have six people with the speedskating team in Pyeongchang, including two garment alteration specialists and Cheng, whose official title will be “mindfulness and recovery specialist.”
And then, of course, there is the matter of the team’s new suits. Clay Dean, Under Armour’s chief innovation officer, said the design team tested 100 different fabrics in more than 250 blends, spending at least 100 hours in wind tunnel tests with the help of the bicycle manufacturer Specialized.
The boldest feature of the suit, Dean said, was the use of an asymmetrical design, with seaming that runs diagonally along the body instead of evenly across, meant to minimize tension in the suit when the skaters are navigating turns in crouched positions.
When U.S. Speedskating conducted its own intensive review after the 2014 Olympics, a picture emerged of an organization resting on its laurels. American speedskaters won 31 medals combined at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Games before being shut out in Sochi.
To start, the review determined that the degree of disappointment experienced in Sochi was a matter of perspective. The racers were simply not as good as they thought and said they were.
Morris said that going into 2014, it had become the expectation that the team was good for another 10 medals.
“When we finished this review, one of our main conclusions was that our expectations were unrealistic,” he added. “When you really look at the data and the results and where we were, we bought into our own hype.”
Morris said the report also faulted the team’s strategy of using last-minute “game-changers,” an idea favored by Finn Halvorsen, the former high-performance director, who was let go shortly after the 2014 Games. The Mach 39 suits were given to the skaters one month before Sochi, as was a new skate polish.
“His philosophy was to introduce these as late as possible in the process because then they’d go to the line feeling like they had a jetpack on their back,” Morris said. “In hindsight, that was the wrong decision.”
This Olympic cycle, the team is striving for comfort and continuity. The current suits were introduced to the skaters last February, specifically tailored to each athlete with the help of body-scanning technology.
“We’ve had ups and downs with the suits since Sochi, and I think Under Armour has done a pretty good job going all in,” said Mitch Whitmore, who specializes in the 500 meters. “We’ve tested these personally instead of just them testing them.”
Before the Sochi Games, the team went through a punishing travel schedule that culminated with an outdoor training camp in Collalbo, Italy. It was an odd choice — many of skaters had never trained outdoors before, and the Sochi races were indoors — and it looked even worse after the camp was marred by inclement weather.
This year, the skaters will gather in Milwaukee until departing for South Korea, recreating the ice conditions they expect to find at the Games. They also are sleeping in and training in the evenings, to align themselves with the unusual nighttime competition schedule.
These were significant, positive changes, Morris said. But he thought better of making any bold predictions.
“I think it got us in trouble in ’14,” Morris said, “and I don’t want to go down that road again.”
Correction: January 22, 2018 
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of the speedskating team’s sports science director. He is Shane Domer, not Dormer.
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