When they race this month at the Olympics, U.S. speedskaters will suit up in skin-tight, high-tech uniforms that research shows could make a measurable difference in their speed.
In a quest to create the world's fastest suit for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, two iconic Maryland companies, Under Armour and Lockheed Martin, created a unique collaboration. Already a supplier for the team, Baltimore's hometown sports apparel brand turned to the Bethesda-based defense and aerospace giant to help it fashion the most aerodynamic suit possible, using computer modeling based on filming the athletes and hundreds of hours of wind tunnel testing.
"We feel going in to Sochi, we have the fastest suits in the world," said Ted Morris, executive director of US Speedskating, the governing body for the Olympic sport. "That's an advantage from a performance standpoint, and a huge advantage from a psychological standpoint."
Under Armour also is supplying uniforms and training outfits for the U.S. bobsled and skeleton and Canada snowboard teams. With a global platform like the Olympics, the company hopes for a bump in sales and, more importantly, to reinforce its mantra of "making all athletes better" in the minds of consumers.
"This isn't about putting a product on a speedskater and sales go through the roof," said Brad Dickerson, Under Armour's chief financial officer. "Will we get some additional traffic to the website? Sure. Will we get a lift in sales in the first quarter? Sure. It's more about the long-term perception of the brand being innovative."
Under development for two years, the suit — dubbed the Mach 39 — brings to mind the controversey stirred by the high-tech, full-body swimsuits embraced by Olympic swimmers several years ago but banned in 2009.
Under Armour insists the speedskating suits are legal and that it followed to the letter the specifications of the International Skating Union, the governing body for speedskating.
While the suits have been top-secret until recently, they've undergone intense scrutiny from both the skating union and the International Olympic Committee. Both approved the suit.
To design the suit, Under Armour's innovation department used high-speed cameras to capture skaters' movements and positions as they sped around the ice at the team's Utah training facility. Under Armour's team worked with Lockheed Martin engineers to analyze how air flows around the skater and determine key body positions.
Using that data, they created fiberglass mannequins in about a half-dozen positions, dressing them in various configurations of more than 100 materials to go through more than 300 hours of wind tunnel testing.
"There wasn't any one position to put a skater or mannequin in to test," said Kevin Haley, Under Armour's vice president of innovation. "We built six different mannequins that captured the most important positions."
They tested hundreds of textiles, materials and placements, and "we did not find one fabric that works fantastically well," Haley said. "That's why we went with different textiles placed on different parts of the body." Using raised dots and pinstriping, "you would think would add drag … but disturbing the air in specific zones can affect aerodynamics in a way that's very positive."
Under Armour says its new suits use "flow molding," polyurethane aerodynamic shapes and bumps that are molded — not sewed or glued — on just the right spots, which counterintuitively disrupts air flow around the athlete's body and enables faster speed. An "Armour Vent" is built into the suit's spine, offering "breathability." Slippery Armour Glide fabric in the thigh area helps reduce friction by as much as 65 percent. The brand's well known moisture-wicking fabric moves sweat away from the skin. And a specially designed stretch zipper runs at an angle across the chest, bypassing the throat.
The idea for the zipper occurred to designers watching how speedskaters tended to pull down zippers at their throat because they became uncomfortable. And that slowed them down by creating drag.
Even the pinstriping design on the black suits, inspired by hot-rod culture, was strategically placed to cut down on drag.
"Based on wind tunnel testing, the suits make a measurable difference per lap," Under Armour spokeswoman Danielle Daly said Friday, though the company is not releasing more specific details prior to the Olympics.
In one respect, all speedskaters at the Olympics will be at a slight disadvantage because, unlike hikers or runners, skaters can go faster at altitude than at sea level, said Robert Chapman, an assistant professor at Indiana University and an expert in exercise physiology and performance at altitude
"If Under Armour has a suit they think can help reduce air resistance by even a fraction of a second, if they truly have a suit that does do what they say and reduce drag, it could be enough to be the difference," Chapman said.
While Under Armour had been supplying the team suits for training and competitions for four years under an agreement with U.S. Speedskating, the idea for something revolutionary for the Olympics percolated along the way.