US speedskaters wore their old suits; what they needed was security blankets

Sally Jenkins (c) 2014, The Washington Post

SOCHI, Russia — It wasn’t the suits; it was the circus. “The energy was really bad,” Shani Davis said. When the U.S. Olympic speedskaters look back at what cost them in these Winter Games, they will analyze everything from the textiles in their Under Armour racing skins, to the polishing of their skate blades. But the real cause of their failures was in their heads.

High-tech fabric, the heat and atmospheric conditions — none of it mattered as much as what was between their ears. The Americans, including Davis, who over three Olympics matured into one of the United States’ most forthright and emotionally honest champions, will eventually see that. The answer to their dumb-founding failures here lies less in a swatch of fabric by Under Armour, than in a collective panic on the part of U.S. athletes and coaches seeking convenient, if thin, cover.

“I do not think it’s the suits; I didn’t in the first place, and I still don’t,” former gold medalist Dan Jansen said. “. . . You can’t come out and blame the suits until there is some real proof both in numbers and in testing.”

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There are a number of theories about what has afflicted the United States in Sochi. There is a plaguing sense of inertness, of skating in place, while suffering a steady seepage of confidence. Davis was the defending Olympic champion in the 1,000 meters and the world record holder in the 1,500, yet after finishing eighth and 11th, he said, “Not being able to find the speed, it plays on me.”

Said Jansen: “They’re just not going anywhere, and I can see it.”

For 48 hours, the skaters and coaches blamed it on potential design flaws in a tissue-thin Under Armour garment. But a racing suit costs fractional hundredths, not the yawning full-second margins of the losses seen here, in which no one has managed to better than seventh place. Bottom line: There are athletes in the field wearing coarser Lycra who have out-quicked the Americans.

After listening to the skaters describe the emotional chaos of the past couple of days, in which they abruptly abandoned their Mach 39 suits for a previous model in a vain bid to reclaim confidence, you wonder if what they really needed was a bunch of security blankets.

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The whole drama seems to have started when Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe failed to make podiums in their favored events, and began tinkering with their suits and complaining about a sense of drag, rumors of which reached someone in the Dutch contingent, who mentioned it to word of which reached Davis, who told the American coaches there was a problem, and from there the entire squad plunged into a state of high-strung uncertainty.

“Then it blew up, and last night it was a little crazy,” skater Brian Hansen said.

When coaches asked the four men entered in Saturday’s 1,500 to vote on what they wanted to wear, they chose to revert to suits they wore in World Cups and the Olympic trials earlier this season. Judging by the lack of improvement in their times, they might as well have worn quilts.

An equally likely explanation for what’s happening to Americans here is that they miscalculated in their training and got caught by the warm, wet sea level conditions in Sochi.

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“There’s absolutely something across the board,” Hansen said.

The American skaters each train slightly differently with their individual coaches, but one theory is the entire USOC as a whole has fallen a little too in love with high-altitude training, and the gratifyingly fast times thin, dry air produces. Most of the skaters train at altitude in Salt Lake City, and even Davis, a Chicago native, has a part-time home there.

But the bottom line was that to single out the suits was a form of denial.

“Medal performance is quite complicated, and it’s very difficult to tell if one factor makes a difference,” said Benjamin Levine, a cardiologist and renowned expert in exercise physiology. No one circumstance could be the entire explanation, but the warm Black Sea air and ice sheet at Adler Arena were awfully big common denominators.

“The higher you go in altitude, the less resistance there is,” said Levine, “and the faster you go, the more air resistance makes a difference. And it’s not just air resistance but also how altitude affects the ice, how water evaporates off the ice, the layers of water and air on the ice.”

The real-world application of that for a skater, Jansen says, is friction. Skating at sea level is less about what it does to your lungs, than what it does to the surface.

“The effect is huge,” he says. The softer, wetter ice in Sochi may have been unfavorable for the Americans, who have powerful long strokes. “Shani is a glider, he glides very well, and most of our team is,” Jansen said.

The Adler Arena rink seemed to force Davis into a less effective rhythm.

“He’s floating into his turns,” Jansen observed. “It looked like he got caught kind of in-between. He took about four long strides, and on this ice, that doesn’t work . . . the friction will slow you down. There is friction here; it’s not like at altitude.”

After the Olympics are over, all of these potential variables will be intensely analyzed by the American skating organization: where they trained, what they ate or drank, what they wore. But what mattered most was what they thought.

“There were some forks in the road, some detours,” Davis said. “But at the end of the day, the paper says I was eighth and 11th, and it doesn’t say it was the suit, or a lack of confidence, or whatever.”