SOCHI, Russia — When speedskating competition resumes Saturday, the U.S. team will be on the ice with a familiar but new look.
They're hoping their results are the same: familiar, but new for these Games.
“For the remainder of the Winter Olympic Games, Team USA speedskaters will be wearing the previously-approved Under Armour skin suits used during recent World Cup competition,” Mike Plant, president of US Speedskating, announced in a news release just before dawn Saturday in Sochi.
US Speedskating earlier sought approval from the International Skating Union and the International Olympic Committee to revert to the World Cup suits. By ISU rules, uniforms must be consistent throughout a team, so the new Mach 39 suits are out and the old suits are in for the remainder of the Games.
Pressure for the change built this week in the wake of a disastrous performance through six events by a team with high expectations. No U.S. speedskater has medaled, including the world's top-ranked skaters, Shani Davis and Heather Richardson.
The suit became the leading suspect for the poor showing. The suit is unproven apart from these Games and was introduced only last month. Richardson attempted to modify her suit this week. The results matched her teammates results: out of the metal.
US Speedskating chief executive Ted Morris earlier confirmed an application with the ISU was “in the process,” and its approval would make swapping the suits “an option.” But he said USS is evaluating everything — from athletes' training to their diets — in addition to Under Armour's suits.
“We don't think (the suits) are having any impact. But at the same time we want to make sure when our athletes get on that start line they have confidence and are ready to go,” Morris said late Friday after meeting with staff and 17 skaters. “That's priority number one.”
The Tribune reported Friday that federation officials were working to get clearance to race in suits that were worn during 28 World Cup medal victories. They also are from Under Armour, but the World Cup attire does not have the supposed benefits of the Mach 39's features. Many skaters brought their old suits with them to Sochi.
“We've performed well in the World Cup suits. I won a World Cup in that suit,” skater Joey Mantia said after practice Friday when asked if he preferred the older suits. “At least there's some kind of confidence there with that.”
The glaring lack of any Olympic medals from a program that has won 67 Winter Olympics medals — the most of any winter sport for the country — has thrown coaches into a frenzy searching for a way to salvage their Games.
The last time the U.S. failed to medal in speedskating? Sarajevo, 1984.
“We're scratching our heads to try to figure out a way to switch it up here with half the Games left,” Morris said.
Davis said Friday the hoopla over the suit would not distract him. After a tuneup in the 500 meters on Monday and disappointing eighth-place finish in the 1,000 on Wednesday, the South Side native is optimistic about his chances in the 1,500, likely his final individual Olympic race.
“Got to rebound from that 1,000. We still have it here,” Davis said Friday, smiling and smacking his chest. “So let's get it on!”
The Mach 39 suit — developed with defense contractor Lockheed Martin — was marketed as the fastest ever in the sport. But its design and materials remained tightly guarded, revealed only after the U.S. Olympic team was set in January.
Glenview's Brian Hansen, who finished 33rd in the 500 and ninth in the 1,000, said he was frustrated by not being able to try the suit beforehand.
“If the entire U.S. team is underperforming compared to our potential — literally everyone — you can only look at so many factors,” he said Thursday. “Is it the suit? Is it our preparation? The suit's the easiest thing to fix.”
Patrick Meek, who finished 20th in the 5,000, said he still believes the Mach 39 is the fastest.
“These guys make F-16 fighter jets,” he said. “If they can invade Afghanistan and Iraq, they can build a speedskating suit.”