Olympics / Sports

US looking for OK to use former speedskating suits

SOCHI, Russia -- When Saturday's speedskating competition gets back under way Saturday, the U.S. team will be on the ice with a familiar but new look.

They're hoping their results are the same: familiar, but new for these Games.

US Speedskating is seeking approval from the International Skating Union and the International Olympic Committee to drop Under Armour's much-hyped Mach 39 suit to revert back to suits worn during its successful World Cup competition this season.

Pressure for the change built this week in the wake of a disastrous performance through six events by a team with high expectations. 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. The suit is unproven apart from these Games and was introduced only last month. Richardson attempted to modify her suit this week. The results matched her teammates: Out of the metal.

US Speedskating chief executive Ted Morris confirmed an application with the ISU was "in the process" and its approval would make swapping the suits "an option." But he said no change has been finalized and USS is evaluating everything -- from athletes' training to their diets -- in addition to Under Armour's suits.

"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 said late Friday after meeting with staff and 17 skaters. "That's priority Number One."

A ruling by the governing bodies is expected by Saturday morning, in time for the men's 1,500 meters. Davis will race in that event.

The Tribune reported Friday that federation officials were working to get clearance to race in suits that were worn winning 28 World Cup medals. Both suits are from Under Armour but the World Cup attire does not have controversial features of the Mach 39. Many skaters brought their old suits with them to Sochi.

"We've performed well in the World Cups suits. I won a World Cup in that suit," skater Joey Mantia said after practice Friday when asked if he preferred the older suits. "At least there's some kind of confidence there with that."

The glaring lack of any Olympic medals from a team that has won 67 Winter Olympic medals -- the most of any winter sport for the country -- has thrown coaches into a frenzy as they search for a way salvage their Games.

The last time the U.S. failed to medal in speedskating? Sarajevo, 1984.

"We're scratching our heads to try and figure out a way to switch it up here with half the Games left to be played," Morris said.

Davis said Friday the hoopla over the suit would not distract him. After a tuneup in the 500 meters on Monday and disappointing eighth-place finish in the 1,000 on Wednesday, the Chicago native is optimistic about his chances in the 1,500, likely his final individual Olympic race.

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

The Mach 39 -- developed with defense contractor Lockheed Martin -- was marketed as the fastest ever in the sport. But its design and materials remained tightly guarded, only revealed after the U.S. Olympic team was set in January.

Brian Hansen, who finished 33rd in the 500 and ninth in the 1,000, told the Chicago 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."

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

"These guys make F-16 fighter jets," he said. "If they can invade Afghanistan and Iraq, they can build a speedskating suit."

Kip Carpenter, a U.S. national team coach, said German skaters are wearing lower-density suits and the Dutch -- whose skaters have won 12 medals so far -- 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. "What is it, a parachute on the back?"

Under Armour has sponsored US Speedskating since 2011, well before the arrival last year of federation of Morris. He and board president Mike Plant become involved after the U.S. Olympic Committee engineered an overhaul of the federation following a scandal in its short-track program.

Under Armour's Kevin Haley had stood behind the new suit. A spokeswoman had no comment on the potential swap.

Finn Halvorsen, the federation's high 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.

Olympic champion Dan Jansen, an NBC commentator, said it is too early to determine exactly what's wrong. But he doesn't think much of the decision to debut new suits at the Olympics.

"Wouldn't have been my approach," Jansen told the Tribune bluntly Friday. But Jansen said the United States success in the recent season shows the skaters can bounce back.

"People said I couldn't turn it around in my last race, and I did."

For these Olympians, the turning around -- or not -- begins Saturday.

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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