U.S. skaters were looking to rebound from an awful start in the Sochi Olympics by slipping back into old suits that should have been made obsolete by new high-tech gear.
Instead of one of the black-and-silver "Mach 39" skinsuits touted as the fastest the world has ever seen, Shani Davis was doing practice laps Saturday in a suit with blue arms and USA printed vertically on the back. It's the early-season World Cup edition made for American skaters.
"People now have something to kind of lock on to, and say, 'ok this is a change,'" said U.S. coach Matthew Kooreman. "Now it is up to us to perform. There's no excuses anymore."
All eyes will be on Davis on Saturday evening, when he should be wearing the old suit during one of his favorite events, the 1,500 meter. He is a double Olympic silver medalist in the event and a strong contender to add gold for the first US speedskating medal of the games.
Davis was the double defending 1,000 champion but faded into eighth place in that race on Wednesday. He was at a loss of words to explain his futility since he said he felt in gold-medal form. When favorites Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe also finished outside the top six the next day, the suit became the major focus of criticism.
Traditionally, the U.S. team has been among the medal leaders halfway through the competition. Instead, it was shut out.
Kooreman hopes changing suits will re-ignite the skaters for the final week of competition. Suit designer Under Armour was busy altering the logo on the old suits, so they will conform with International Olympic Committee regulations. If they fail to meet specifications, the suits would be illegal.
"We don't see it as any problem at all," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams, as long as the suits meet the branding and regulation standards.
Kooreman acknowledged that the Mach 39 suits had been competition tested only "very minimally." Instead, the team is reverting to a suit that has a proven track record, since Bowe already has set world records in them. "So just kind of something to spark a little bit of change," Kooreman said.
While the U.S. team got its suits just before the Olympics started, some among the Dutch team have been using their new uniforms since October. The Dutch have dominated through the first six races, winning 12 of a possible 18 medals, including four golds.
"It looked worse because the Dutch are performing so well. It really rubbed it in our faces," said Kooreman.
Now the Dutch have the bragging rights, after Under Armour company described the Mach 39 suit, developed together with the U.S. aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin, as "the fastest speedskating suit in the world."
Kooreman said that is just what marketing men do. "And when you don't live up to that expectation, you get it thrown back at you pretty harshly."