U.S. Speedskating Falters On Ice — Are Their Suits To Blame?

The U.S. speedskating team came into these games with a great record and what many thought was a real chance to load up on medals. As the skaters approach their final events, the program seems in disarray, in part due to controversy over a highly touted Under Armour suit.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

We turn now to the Winter Games in Sochi and speedskating. The Netherlands has won a whopping 16 medals in speedskating. The U.S. has zero and that's despite having record holders and gold medalists on the team, like Shani Davis and Heather Richardson.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on some of the factors behind the U.S. team's difficulties.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you're the fastest women and men on ice skates, the difference between first and 14th could be one false move, an off feeling, even a thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF A GUN SHOT AND CHEERING)

GLINTON: Brittany Bowe finished 14th in the women's 1500-meter, a race she's come close to dominating.

BRITTANY BOWE: Didn't really hit the lot times that I wanted to. Didn't get up speed as fast as I think I should have. But it was a tough race and I gave it my all, and that's all I can ask for.

GLINTON: Bowe finished teammate Heather Richardson who came in seventh; Richardson has a record in the thousand. Other marquee racers like Shani Davis and Brian Hansen, both medalists, haven't come close to the podium.

Right before the Olympics, the U.S. switched up training facilities, and they got brand new suits that would have their race debut at the Olympics. They were designed by Under Armour and Lockheed Martin. After the first round of disappointing results, the Americans decided that maybe switching to new skin suits wasn't a good idea, so they switched back to their old ones.

Here's skater Brian Hansen.

BRIAN HANSEN: I have confidence with this skin suit that I know I finished top three with it. You know that's partly psychological. That's partly just knowing that this skin suit is comfortable with me and it's fast enough where it's possible for me to finish top three in the world.

GLINTON: Hansen says the newer suit might very well be the fastest. He just didn't feel comfortable in it yet. But he says skin suits were beside the point.

HANSEN: It was a little tough for me to focus on what I was trying doing. Not that the skin was a big deal, it was more the worries about everything going around the - all that, you know, the coaches, the media, the Under Armour, all the worry around that.

NANCY SWIDER-PELTZ: I am tired of not being believed. I'm tired of being told that science is the only answer, that intuition and experience is not good enough.

GLINTON: Nancy Swider-Peltz is Hansen's individual coach. She says Brian Hansen is still one of the fastest skaters in the world. But she faults one U.S. Speedskating for getting cocky and spooking the athletes, like changing where they practice.

SWIDER-PELTZ: Three weeks before an Olympics, you don't make that drastic of a change; change in altitude, change in ice, throwing in a new skin, throwing in some other factors that should not have been thrown in. You don't throw a kitchen sink of stuff at kids - anybody, you know, right before an Olympics.

GLINTON: Ryan Shimabukuro is with U.S. speedskating. He says during an Olympics is not the time to be looking in the rear view mirror.

RYAN SHIMABUKURO: It could just be the perfect storm right now that's going the other way for us. But we're professionals. We're going to continue towing the line with the best intent to give our very best.

GLINTON: But if you ask the Dutch, it isn't that the Americans are losing. It's that they are winning and by wide margins. Jan van Veen is a coach with the Netherlands speedskating team. He says he's puzzled by what's happening with the U.S. team.

JAN VAN VEEN: That they're great on Olympics and the coach is - knows what he's doing, because there were a lot of results in former years. So I don't know what happens.

GLINTON: Van Veen says part of the dominance of the Dutch is that in the Netherlands, speedskating is a professional spectator sport with a lot of money and a lot of support behind it.

VAN VEEN: That's more than a suit. I mean you don't lose three seconds by wearing the wrong suit.

GLINTON: Van Veen says you should never count the U.S. out. And you shouldn't have counted the Dutch out either.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Sochi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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