Working in extreme secrecy, two local companies have poured millions of dollars into a project targeted at making a big splash at the Winter Olympics in February: a speedskating suit that is more aerodynamic than any the sport has seen.
Under Armour, the Baltimore-based sports apparel company, partnered with Lockheed Martin, the Bethesda-based behemoth specializing in defense, security and aerospace, to build what is being called the “Mach 39.”
While at a glance it might not appear remarkable — no photos have been released, but like recent Olympic speedskating uniforms, it’s dark and skin-tight — the big changes are in the smallest details, all shrouded in secrecy. Fewer than two dozen employees have access to Under Armour’s “innovation lab” located on its sprawling Baltimore campus, and to gain entrance, each must hold his or her wrist under a scanner, which reads the unique pattern of veins beneath the skin.
Patrick Meek, who is hoping for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, has been helping with the clandestine operation, but he’s not on the company payroll, so he’s careful with his words.
“I can’t say too much,” Meek said recently, “because I’m pretty sure the guys at Under Armour would kill me.”
Meek allows this much: “There’s no question in my mind this is the fastest speedskating suit ever made and it will be the fastest speedskating suit, period.”
Lockheed Martin’s engineers typically deal with large objects that reach speeds measured in machs; speed skaters can still top 40 mph with just a thin blade of metal separating them from the ice. The engineering teams created six mannequins, each mimicking different body positions assumed by skaters as they zip around the ice. The mannequins then took up residency in wind tunnels where they tried on a variety of outfits. Altogether, Under Armour tested more than 100 textiles — 250 configurations in all — moving seams and zippers and fabrics all about.
They settled on a suit that utilizes five fabrics, each with its own function and purpose. The air vent on the spine, for example, allows the body to release heat. And the slick fabric on the inner thigh cuts down on friction as the skater crosses his legs on turns.
“In real simple terms, it’s all about aerodynamics,” said Kevin Haley, Under Armour’s senior vice president of innovation. “It’s every seam, every dot, every little potential disturbance in the air flowing over the body. Some of them are minor, but some of them are shockingly significant.”
Perhaps the biggest alteration is also the most counterintuitive. The slickest fabric didn’t always result in the fastest suit. In fact, engineers found a rougher textile that disturbed air flow performed best both in the wind tunnel and on the ice.
“Think of a car,” Haley said. “If you go down a dusty road in the rain, which part of your car gets dirty? The back. The wind goes up, over and around the car and then sucks back. That is what we’re trying to release the skater from.”
Finding the right combination of fabrics and determining the perfect placement of every seam was a process of trial and error and is why the project turned into a two-year undertaking.
“I’ve been at testing where I’ve tried on the suit and everyone looked at it. And then I took it off, and we threw it in the garbage,” Meek said. “Fifteen people from Under Armour would fly out for that. ‘Nope, that didn’t work.’ ”
Under Armour won’t reveal exactly how much faster the suits might perform in Sochi. But even if they shave a fraction of a second per lap, they can be impactful. At the 2010 Games in Vancouver, both the men’s 500- and 1,000-meter races were decided by less than two-tenths of a second, the 1,500 meters by barely a half-second and the 5,000 by 21 / 2 seconds.
Some of the women’s races were even closer. In the 1,000 meters, for example, just two-hundredths of a second separated gold and silver.
The new suits will surely be likened to the full-body swimsuits, which increased buoyancy and helped shatter records before they were banned in 2009. But the technology utilized by Under Armour is more akin to changes made to the javelin a quarter century ago. Designers added dimples and roughed up the texture on the javelin to increase tail drag. After the world record climbed by 37 feet in five years, the serrated javelin was outlawed in 1991.
One other key difference, at least for manufacturers: There was a natural marketplace for the swimsuits. Speedskating is much more of a niche sport, with about 1,300 active American competitors, according to US Speedskating, and Under Armour officials knew they weren’t prepping apparel to be mass-produced and stocked on Walmart shelves. The target audience is elite, world-class competitors.
“This is not something that somebody is going to wear down the street or to a cocktail party,” Haley said. “This was never about making money selling speedskating suits.”
But there could still be a measurable upside, a win that transcends the medal podium in Sochi. Kip Fulks, Under Armour’s chief operating officer, said the company’s heritage is in tight-fitting compression shirts and officials see the speedskating suit as a natural extension. The Olympics provide an important platform to spread the company's growing brand across a global marketplace.
“It’s all brand,” Fulks said. “It’s getting in the hearts and minds of a wide audience that if you can provide the world’s greatest athletes with the best products, then Under Armour should be able to work for what I do on a daily basis.”
Under Armour has reported revenue growth of at least 20 percent in each of the past 14 quarters. The company’s full-year net revenue in 2013 is expected to top $2.25 billion. With most of its sales coming from North America, the company is eager to extend its reach, and Under Armour has recently opened stores or offices in China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil and Chile.
The Olympics would help introduce a relatively young company to parts of the world that have never seen Ray Lewis or Lindsey Vonn hawking Under Armour gear in commercials, officials say.
“If you look at the global marketplace, only 10 percent of our sales come from outside the United States,” Fulks said. “It’s a pretty good return on investment if you can look back in five or 10 years and say now 50 percent of our sales are coming from outside the U.S.”
Once the Olympic team is selected, skaters will have a final fitting to make sure every wrinkle is accounted for and should receive their new suits shortly thereafter.
Like the skaters, the engineers and manufacturers will measure their success on the medal podium.
“That’s what we do,” Haley said. “It’s in our DNA. We want to make all athletes better.”