Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent
Stung by a medals drought in the Winter Olympics, U.S. speed-skaters are shedding their much-heralded Under Armour Mach 39 aerodynamic suits – which were billed as the world’s fastest – to go back to the speed apparel they sported during the World Cup competitions. The new suits, the result of a two-year engineering partnership between Baltimore-based Under Armour and Fort Worth-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, were designed to reduce air friction and shave seconds from Olympics times. But, after six competitions without winning any medals, the U.S. skaters decided to bring out their older suits, also produced by Under Armour, in the hopes of rallying in the remaining events. “For the remainder of the Winter Olympic Games, Team USA speedskaters will be wearing the previously-approved Under Armour skin suits used during recent World Cup competition,” U.S. Speedskating President Mike Plant said in a statement. “Under Armour provided US Speedskating with three different suit configurations in advance of Sochi, and we have full confidence in the performance benefits of each of them.” There appeared to be no outright evidence that the new suits were scuttling the U.S. team’s performance. But Derek Parra, a 2002 gold and silver medalist who is now director of sports at The Utah Olympic Oval, where the U.S. team trained, said the skaters were accustomed to the older suits and apparently believed a wardrobe change offered a chance to salvage their Olympic hopes in Sochi, Russia.
“This suit has been used in the past. They felt comfortable with using it, so tomorrow we’ll know whether it was the suit or not,” Parra told the Business Press on Friday afternoon. “They’ll go back to the drawing board.” In its role for the Olympics, Lockheed Martin, which is widely known for supersonic warplanes such as the F-35, F-22 and F-16, worked with Under Armour’s team to create a “computational fluid dynamics model” to analyze how air flows around the skater, said Kenneth B. Ross, director of communications and public affairs for Lockheed Martin Aerospace Co. “The work included small-scale wind tunnel testing in Lockheed Martin’s facilities of different skin materials and development of drag reduction concepts for prototype skins, followed by drag testing of specific racing poses at the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel at the University of Maryland,” he said. Engineers from Fort Worth participated in the project, Ross said. Ross said the company had no response on the Olympic team’s decision to switch suits although “obviously we’ve followed along with the news as most other people have.”
“We’re proud to be in a position to support the team and provide the research and the analysis that we provided in that project,” he said. “We’re not in the day to day mix of this. Our piece of the work was done.” Lockheed Martin Corporation, based in Bethesda, Md., is widely considered the world’s largest defense firm and employs more than 15,000 Metroplex workers at the aeronautics plant in west Fort Worth and the smaller Missiles and Fire Control unit in Grand Prairie. More than 12,500 workers are employed at the mile-long Fort Worth plant, which is charged with producing more than 2,400 models of the F-35 Lightning II for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The 100th F-35 rolled off the Fort Worth assembly line in December. Under Armour, in a fact-sheet, said the Mach39 was engineered “for superior aerodynamic performance on the ice” and was “developed from the ground up in partnership with Lockheed Martin.” Development and testing began more than two years ago when the design team used a special high-speed camera to capture speed-skaters’ movements on ice. Under Armour’s “Innovation Team” then worked with Lockheed Martin to determine key body positions and determine the flow of air around the skater. Reinforced fiberglass mannequins were created to conduct over 300 hours of wind tunnel testing with hundreds of different skin set-ups and textile configurations to find the most aerodynamic combination, said Under Armour. The goal was to produce a molded polyurethane aerodynamic shape placed on critical areas of the skin to disrupt the air flow around the athlete’s body. The design also included moisture-wicking technology to keep sweat from weighing down the skin. But ABC News reported Friday that concern was focusing on a vent in the back of the suit that was designed to cool the skater. Air may have been seeping into the vent, creating a slight ballooning that could have created drag, the network reported. Plant, the U.S. Speedskating president , said Friday that “US Speedskating is proud of its long-term, successful partnership with Under Armour, and we all look forward to the upcoming races.” “Under Armour’s mission is to make all athletes better, and they are working tirelessly with Team USA to ensure each athlete steps on the ice with 100 percent confidence so they are positioned to capture a spot on the podium,” he said. Parra, who was 32 when he medaled at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, said speed skating technology has come along away since the 1960s, when speed skating suits “were just wool tights and sweat shirts and sweat shirts and big mittens and beans’” The Olympian discussed the technology with the Business Press in a telephone interview from the Utah Olympics Oval, which was built as the speed skating training site for the 2002 Olympics. The Oval, located near Salt Lake City, has remained as the training center for Olympics speed skating, ice hockey, figure skating and curling. Parra said that skating suit technology ramped up with development of a skin suit by Nike in advance of the Salt City Olympics. Over the years, he said, researchers discovered that the design of the suits can complement the skills of the skater by reducing air friction and cutting critical fractions of seconds. The newest suit features bubbles and louvers designed to push out air away from the skater and help prevent drag. “You were shaving off seconds just by having a piece of material on your body,” said Parra, who is familiary with the Mach39. “Eighty percent of speed skating is frontal air resistance,” he said. “That’s why speed skaters skate in that crouched position…Eighty percent is pretty substantial in a sport that comes down to a hundredth of a second.” Parra acknowledged that the 2014 teams’ unexpected failure to grab a medal so far is a “little bit disturbing” but he held out hopes of rebound in the Olympics’ final days. “I’m not sure what the problem is,” he said. “The U.S team unfortunately hasn’t skated to their potential in the races thus far but they still have a chance