U.S. skaters bury ghost of skin suits past

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - If the U.S. speed skating team draw a blank in South Korea like they did in Sochi four years ago, the one thing they will not be able to blame is their skin suits.

U.S. skaters served up a shock by failing to pick up a single long-track medal despite sending a strong contingent to the Games in Sochi, and their skin suit maker Under Armour bore the brunt of the fallout for that failure.

The chief complaint was that athletes were not allowed to get used to the suits before the Olympics, while fingers were also pointed at the design, which included a vent in the back that skaters said slowed them down by creating a vacuum.

Rather than part ways with U.S. Speed Skating after the deluge of bad press, Under Armour doubled down and has worked closely with the team that landed in South Korea to ensure a repeat is not on the cards.

“First off it was super tight,” Mitch Whitmore, who raced in the old skin suit and finished 27th in the 500 meters at the Sochi Games, told reporters in Pyeongchang on Thursday.

“Second, we only put it on like two weeks before the races started. It was really heavy, it just didn’t stretch at all, also the vent on the back wasn’t great.

“But we’ve changed all of that. Our suit is really light, it stretches, it fits awesome, it looks cool. I think Under Armour and our coaching staff have done it all.”

In the world of speed skating, the difference between success and failure can come down to hundredths of a second, so having the right kind of aerodynamic skin suit technology on your side is essential.

Millions of dollars are invested between each Olympic cycle to test suits in wind tunnels and design innovations are closely guarded from competing nations until as close to the Olympics as possible.

“Ultimately long track is a huge mental sport,” said Joey Mantia, who will represent the United States in the 1,000m, 1,500m, mass start and team pursuit.

“If you believe in what you’re racing in that’s a big step in the right direction. I think we’re all really happy with where the suits are and that’s not going to be a factor this Games.”

The U.S. went back to the drawing board after Sochi, and arrive in South Korea with several novel methods designed to help the team, including using tai chi instructor Mark Cheng to help them recover after training sessions.

“Most of it is stuff that we already think about but he’s a good instructor for mindfulness and just tai chi in general, going through the movements and loosening up our bodies,” said Whitmore, who will race the 500m and 1,000m in Korea.

Tai chi and spending much more time training on the ice than they did before Sochi has left the team in good spirits, and with the belief they can win at least five medals at the Gangneung Oval.

“Basically our staff has handed us all of the tools that we need to get medals, it’s just up to us now,” Mantia said. “If we perform, we perform. There’s no more blaming it on anything else.”

Editing by Amlan Chakraborty