For months, it was veiled in secrecy and shrouded in mystery, a classified technology developed by engineers at defense contractor Lockheed Martin to give Americans an X-factor advantage in Russia.
Was it some kind of high-tech spy gadget?
A throwback to clandestine Cold War tactics?
Neither. It was a speedskating skin suit.
More specifically, it was the Under Armour Mach 39 Speedskating Suit, which is to skin suits what the Lamborghini Gallardo is to sports cars. Its sole purpose is to help U.S. long-track skaters shave precious hundredths of a second off their times at the Sochi Olympic Games next month.
If science could put a man on the moon, surely it can put a skater on the podium.
The Mach 39, developed by Lockheed for Under Armour, looks like something out of a George Lucas-Steven Spielberg movie. It utilizes five different textiles, polyurethane bumps to disrupt air flow, pin-striping to reduce drag, moisture-wicking technology and a tiny jet pack hidden in the gluteus area.
OK, just kidding about the jet pack. But everything else is true.
The suit is so top-secret and hush-hush that when U.S. speedskaters were ushered into a room to try it on for the first time, their cell phones were confiscated.
"They took all our cameras and everything so we couldn't take a picture of it," said Brian Hansen. "There was a lady standing there saying, 'Give me your cell phone."'
The skaters had to give back the suits after trying them on, but Under Armour let them keep the empty boxes.
"You should see the box they put this thing in," Hansen said. "I took a picture of the box. That's how big of a deal this box was. You want to see it?"
Hansen, who trains at the Pettit National Ice Center, whipped out his phone and showed a reporter a photo of a NASA-inspired black box, with the letters "USA" printed on it in a futuristic-looking font.
"There's a lot of crazy things they've got going on," Hansen said of the suit. "Almost everything about it is different than a regular skin."
The Mach 39 is the result of a two-year research program, which included more than 300 hours of wind-tunnel testing with mannequins. Lockheed engineers used high-speed cameras to create computational fluid dynamic models that analyzed how air flowed around the athlete in key skating positions.
Translation: The suit reduces drag.
The Mach 39 features small polyurethane bumps on the hood, forearms and lower legs to disrupt airflow, which is counter-intuitive to the long-held belief that skin suits should be smooth and slippery to reduce air drag. Wind tunnel tests showed the bumps made the suit faster.
Can all this rocket science really make a difference? Kevin Haley, Under Armour's senior vice president of innovation, told Sports Illustrated that "nobody thought we'd be able to show measurable improvement over 1,000 meters. It appears that is what we've achieved."
The U.S. long-track team is leaving nothing to chance. The skaters left Tuesday for Collalbo in the mountains of northern Italy, where they will train at high altitude on an outdoor ice track before heading to Russia.
Proponents of altitude training contend that when athletes travel to lower altitudes -- Sochi is at sea level -- they will have a higher concentration of red blood cells for 10 to 14 days, which gives them a competitive advantage.
Emery Lehman, at 17 the youngest athlete on the U.S. long-track team, doesn't know about all that. But he's been to Collalbo and likes it.
"I was there last year for the Junior World Championships," he said. "It's really nice. It's up in the mountains. I'm just excited to go there. It's a pretty fun place. I don't really know anything about the science behind it."
U.S. Speedskating prepared a contingency plan for poor weather in Collalbo. In that case, the team would drive to Inzell, Germany, for its final pre-Olympics training.
Hansen, who won a silver medal in team pursuit at the 2010 Vancouver Games, hopes the suit and the altitude training give the Americans an edge.
But who's to say another country hasn't thought of something else?
"The Olympics are an interesting thing," Hansen said. "Every country starts pulling out all these crazy ideas and concepts. There's a lot of blade-polishing concepts floating around out there. The high-altitude stuff. Powders and drinks.
"I remember four years ago people were talking about taking sodium bicarbonate before your race to neutralize your body heat. I don't know. Just all this stuff. You can only do so much of this."
True enough. Eventually, a skater has to get on the ice and use his or her training to power his or her legs. The real secret to getting on the podium may just be good old-fashioned hard work.
(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services