Why are U.S. speedskaters struggling?
SOCHI, Russia -- It was billed as the greatest racing suit in speedskating history, one that potentially would forever change the sport.
To understand the materials and components that went into the revolutionary Mach 39, you needed a degree in rocket science. Literally. Aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin partnered with Under Armour to create the secret weapon that everyone believed would lead to American gold in Sochi.
But on the past two nights here on the coast of the Black Sea, there is only one thing U.S. athletes have taken with them from Adler Arena: disappointment.
One night after Shani Davis stumbled in his quest to become the first man to three-peat in the 1,000 meters, finishing eighth, it was the women's turn. Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe woke up Thursday as the two top-ranked middle-distance skaters in the world. They had combined to win every World Cup race this season. Even if one of them made some sort of a mistake, surely the other would be there to salvage some sort of American medal at 1,000 meters.
But when 36 skaters completed their heats, Richardson's time of 1:15.23 placed her seventh overall. Bowe finished 0.24 seconds slower than her close friend and in eighth.
And one day after Davis told reporters he got his "ass kicked," it was U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro who provided the gut-wrenching postrace analysis.
"I'm at a loss for words right now," Shimabukuro said. "I definitely didn't expect that. I'm disappointed. I'm upset. We came in with a lot of momentum, and to be skunked so far is not a fun place to be."
So what exactly is going on? Is it possible that the Americans' secret weapon has become its biggest problem? Is there an issue with training? Diet? Sleep? Nerves? Ice conditions? Failed strategy? What gives?
"I wish I had the answer to that, but I don't," Bowe said. "It's hard to pinpoint one thing. Are we where we want to be? No."
Which is why reporters kept asking about Under Armour's Mach 39 after Thursday's race. Though the suits were tested extensively prior to the Olympics, they did not make their competitive debut until this week in Sochi. Asked about the potential impact of the suits, Shimabukuro had little to say after the race.
"I'm not going to comment on that," he said. "We have to race in the suits. Under Armour has been a great partner for us, and we still have to go to the line and compete."
In response to a second query about the suits, Shimabukuro added, "The fact of the matter is the results show where we're at, and it's unfortunate. We've had a great lead-up to the Games, and for whatever reason now we're getting skunked."
Richardson, who said her race felt "completely normal," furthered speculation when she told reporters that her suit had been adjusted prior to Thursday's race, with a vent in the rear of the suit being covered with rubber.
Over the course of the previous two years, Under Armour met monthly with national team skaters in Salt Lake City. Motion capture technology was used to gather data. Six mannequins imitating various skating positions were tested for more than 300 hours in wind tunnels at Lockheed Martin and Under Armour. It was a multimillion-dollar operation. Skaters seemed ecstatic about the possibilities, with Patrick Meek telling the Chicago Tribune, "There is no question in my mind that this is the fastest speedskating suit ever made. ... Like, it's going to be banned right away."
On Thursday, Richardson and Bowe were both leading the race after 400 meters and faded toward the end. Is that a result of the suit? There are a multitude of factors that go into deciding the result of any sporting event, especially one in which second and ninth place can be separated by less than a second, as it was Thursday. Richardson simply explained what happened as "other countries are getting fast."
Bowe said she also felt strong throughout the race and the suits aren't the problem.
"No, not at all," she said. "There are hundreds of variables that go into it."
Kevin Haley, who worked extensively on the research and design of the groundbreaking technology as Under Armour's senior vice president of innovation, said in a statement: "We are committed to providing Team USA with the best possible gear, and Mach 39 is the most scientifically advanced and rigorously tested suit ever featured in Olympic competition.
"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, and we're rooting for that to translate into medals over these next couple of days."
Shimabukuro was asked if perhaps it was a bad idea to train at elevation in Italy, where the ice is faster than it is at sea level in Sochi. He quickly shot down that idea, pointing out that several other teams that have been successful in Sochi trained at elevation as well.
"We are proud of our long-term partnership with Under Armour and have worked in collaboration to provide our athletes with the best and most innovative suits to maximize their performance on the ice," USA Speedskating executive director Ted Morris said in a statement. "The evidence does not suggest that the suits have contributed to the disappointing results to date. However, there are many factors that determine Olympic success and we are constantly making adjustments to improve results. We're working with our athletes, coaches, trainers and Under Armour to figure out what we can do to produce better results for Team USA at these Winter Olympic Games."
The U.S. has precious little time to find an answers. Davis will return to Adler Arena on Saturday for the 1,500-meter Race of Kings, the Olympic race in which he has twice won silver. One day later, the spotlight will again be on Richardson and Bowe at the same distance. Win a medal or two and surely this will all go away. Come up empty-handed and the questions won't get any easier.
"We have to stick together like we have all year, and hopefully it will turn around," Bowe said.