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U.S. speedskaters officially abandon new racing suit

By Jared S. Hopkins

Chicago Tribune

LAST UPDATED: 5:58 a.m. HST, Feb 15, 2014

SOCHI, Russia » U.S. speedskaters will resume competition Saturday in an older racing suit from Under Armour, abandoning the apparel maker's much-hyped high-tech Mach 39 suit that debuted at these Games.

"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," Mike Plant of US Speedskating announced in a press release just before dawn in Sochi on the day that racing resumes.

"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. We are constantly evaluating all aspects of race preparation and execution to help our athletes improve their output and maximize their physical and psychological advantages."

US Speedskating earlier sought approval from the International Skating Union to revert to suits worn during World Cup competition this season. By ISU rules, uniforms must be consistent throughout a team, meaning it's all in for either the old suit or the Mach 39 through the end of the Games.

Pressure to make the change built this week in the wake of the team's disastrous performance thus far. No U.S. speedskater has medaled, including the world's top-ranked skaters Shani Davis and Heather Richardson. The suit became the leading suspect for the poor showing.

US Speedskating chief executive Ted Morris disputed the Chicago Tribune's findings earlier Friday that a wardrobe change had been made. Morris earlier confirmed that the application with the ISU was "in the process" and approval from the governing body would make swapping "an option." Morris said no decision to make the change had been finalized.

"We don't think (the suits) are having any impact but at the same time we want to make sure when our athletes get on that start line they have confidence and are ready to go," Morris had said. "That's priority Number One."

The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday that US Speedskating officials were working to get ISU clearance for American skaters to race in old suits. Those suits were also designed by Under Armour but do not have the benefit — or drag — of the Mach 39's features. Many, but not all, U.S. skaters brought their old suits with them to Sochi.

Davis said Friday he would not be distracted by the controversy surrounding Under Armour's latest racing suit. After a tuneup in the 500 meters on Monday and disappointing eighth-place finish in the 1,000 on Wednesday, the South Side native is optimistic about his chances in Saturday's 1,500, perhaps his final individual Olympic race.

"Got to rebound from that 1,000. We still have it here," Davis said Friday, smiling and pointing to his chest. "So let's get it on!"

As coaches and skaters continued to scramble through the week, they looked at everything from training programs to their diet regimen. So far, only the suits appear to be ripe for change.

"We've performed well in the World Cups suits. I won a World Cup in that suit," skater Joey Mantia said. "At least there's some kind of confidence there with that."

The Mach 39 — developed with defense contractor Lockheed Martin — was marketed by Under Armour as the fastest ever in the sport. It was kept under wraps until after the U.S. Olympic team was set after December's trials. They were not used in competition prior to coming to Sochi.

Patrick Meek, who finished 20th in the 5,000, said he still believes the Mach 39 is fast.

But Glenview, Ill.'s Brian Hansen, who finished 33rd in the 500 and ninth in the 1,000, told the Tribune on Thursday that he was frustrated by not being able to try the suit beforehand.

"If the entire U.S. team is underperforming compared to our potential — literally everyone — you can only look at so many factors," he said Thursday. "Is it the suit? Is it our preparation? The suit's the easiest thing to fix."

Earlier Friday, Kip Carpenter, a U.S. national team coach, said the team was looking at "all options" to improve, and wants to ensure the skaters are in comfortable suits, regardless of which suit. He said German skaters are wearing lower-density suits and the Dutch are simply beating them. In that regard, the Dutch are beating nearly everyone.

"My personal opinion is it's ridiculous to think we're slowing down a second and a half because of a skin suit," said Carpenter, who won bronze medal in 2002. "There's not one athlete out there that thinks they're slowing down a second per lap because of a suit that they're in. What is it, a parachute on the back?"

Under Armour's Kevin Haley stood behind the new suit in a statement Thursday: "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," in the Mach 39 and Haley is, "rooting for that to translate into medals over these next couple of days."

US Speedskating's Finn Halvorsen, the federation's performance director, declined Friday to discuss reasons for the team's disappointing results -- including the suit -- until after skaters finish in Sochi on Feb. 22.

"I don't think we can say one thing," Halvorsen said. "I think we have to talk about a combination of factors."

In an attempt to improve their prospects, several skaters have covered a meshed vent along the spine. Despite the adjustment, Richardson, the top-ranked women's skater in the world, finished seventh in the 1,000 on Thursday.

The suits weren't the only change from routine before the Games.

A new blade polish was used by skaters when they arrived in Sochi.

And 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.

Like U.S. head coach Ryan Shimabukuro, Halvorsen defended the decision to train in Italy, as the U.S. did before the Turin Games in 2006. Other teams in Sochi also trained at Collalbo before these Games.

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 dominant Dutch team — whose skaters have taken 12 medals so far — had once researched a similar flap to include on their suits. But they decided against it.

"We have never worn it," said Gerard Kemkers, the Dutch coach who years ago coached U.S. skaters in Milwaukee.

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