GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Their names are Nick and Susan. There are pair of Nicks and a trio of Susans. None of them say much. And all of them all unable to move without some sort of assistance. But for the past four years, they have played a critical role in helping the U.S. Speedskating team rebound from its disastrous medal-less performance four years ago in Sochi.
The Nicks and Susans are five Under Armour mannequins who have spent much of the past four years in wind tunnels wearing more than 100 fabrics in 250 different blends in search of the combination that American speedskaters will take to the starting line with them beginning this week in Pyeongchang.
Four years ago in Sochi, Under Armour unveiled its Mach 39 racing suit, insisting that the cutting-edge sports giant was about to become a disrupter on the global speedskating stage. Instead, UA received the brunt of the criticism for the U.S. struggles -- fair or unfair. Midway through the Games, their high-tech Lockheed Martin racing suits were replaced by an older model American athletes had raced with in the past.
"First off it was super tight," said U.S. speedskater Mitch Whitmore. "Second we only put it on like two weeks before the races started. And when we first put it on we were skating outdoors, which most of us hadn't done in the past six to seven years. It was really heavy. It didn't stretch. The vent wasn't great."
In other words, the athletes weren't happy. But instead of Under Armour or U.S. Speedskating walking away, they doubled down, started from scratch and analyzed everything they can do on and off the ice to improve their performance.
"Together, we rolled up our sleeves and got in the trenches," said Paul Winsper, Under Armour's director of athlete performance. "This wasn't just dropping off shirts and shoes. This was a new way of thinking. It was a full audit of the performance. And you can't solve those problems unless you are living, breathing, eating and sleeping with the athletes. So we had to deeply immerse ourselves in their world."
Immersion meant far more than just redesigning the race suit and developing a proprietary fabric UA claims is the most aerodynamic it has ever developed. Winsper, who joined UA just after the Sochi Games, built a plan that included measuring everything from brain wave activity and sleep tendencies to heart rate variability. He brought in famed Tour de France cyclist Jen Voigt to lead the team on long-distance bicycle rides through Santa Rosa, California during its off-season training camp.
"You want these guys to focus on their performance and not have to worry about anything else." Shane Domer, sports science director for Under Armour
UA worked alongside the team's sports science director, Shane Domer, to educate the athletes on nutrition and sleep schedules. They brought in Navy SEALs to discuss competing in an individual sport but remaining part of a team. They even showed the athletes how to turn their rooms in the village into sleep sanctuaries using blackout curtains and special lighting and sound to create a relaxed environment.
And then, at last year's camp, they brought in Dr. Mark Cheng, a human movement specialist and tai chi master to help the athletes better understand how to get oxygen throughout their bodies when they're competing in an oxygen-debilitating position.
And just to make sure it would all work, Domer tried to eliminate every potential Olympic stumbling block by visiting the Olympic oval last year and measuring everything from the ice temperature to thickness. They then replicated those precise conditions during pre-Olympic training in Milwaukee.
"You want these guys to focus on their performance and not have to worry about anything else," Domer said.
But in South Korea, of course, the focus will be on the suits. While a post-Sochi audit by U.S. Speedskating found criticism of the Mach 39 to be overblown, changes still were made. Unlike 2014 when the team received its suits two weeks before the Games, this his time Under Armour set a deadline of Feb. 15, 2017 -- a year before the Games -- to put down its pens and stop working on the 2018 suit. The custom-fit suits would not only include revolutionary fabrics supported by the Nicks and Susans in the wind tunnels but an asymmetrical seam around the waist designed to take advantage of the fact that skaters are always doing one of two things: going straight or turning left.
"With all of the data we've seen and all of the hours in the wind tunnel and the analysis we have extremely high confidence in saying this is the highest performing aerodynamic skin we have developed over these eight years," said Mark Cumisky, a materials innovator for the company.
Of course, Under Armour was equally confident four years ago. What makes this different?
"We've been holding hands the entire way," Cumisky said. "We've been making moves not blindly, but as a team right alongside U.S. Speedskating. I don't have any nerves whatsoever. My confidence level is at an all-time high."
The athletes are equally bullish.
"The suits are simply not a worry for us," Joey Mantia said. "It gives us a huge peace of mind to know that so much R&D has gone into this, everything we've asked for as athletes they have given to us and things couldn't be any better.
"Our staff has handled us all the tools we need to get medals. It's up to us now. If we perform, we perform. If we don't we don't. But it's up to us now. No more excuses."
Will it all work? The Nicks and Susans certainly think so. The real answer will be revealed in the coming two weeks in Pyeongchang. The team certainly seems plenty lose. When asked this week to predict a potential medal count, the 32-year-old Mantia didn't blink.
"More than zero?" he quipped.