Shani Davis & Engineering Competition Suits

Long track speed skater Shani Davis has the opportunity to become the first man to win gold medals in the same event in three consecutive Olympic Winter Games. In addition to his quickness, endurance, and skating prowess, Davis will be wearing one of the most advanced competition suits ever engineered. "Science and Engineering of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games" is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

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LIAM McHUGH, reporting: Long track speed skating is a sport that rewards quickness, endurance, and skating prowess. Attributes that define Shani Davis. 

Announcer: Shani Davis, pushing it ‘til the end! And he's got another gold medal!

McHUGH: After winning the 1000 meter event in 2006 and 2010, Davis has a chance to become the first U.S. man to win gold in the same event in three consecutive Olympic Winter Games.

SHANI DAVIS (Speed Skating Gold Medalist):  That given day hopefully when it comes, I’m the best man out there and I’m able to stand as tall as I possibly can on the podium.

McHUGH: Davis will have more than his physical skills to rely upon. He'll also be wearing what may be one of the most advanced competition suits ever engineered.

KEVIN HALEY (Under Armour, Inc.): How can you make the suit help the athlete to just be that much faster in a sport where, you know, hundredths or even thousandths of a second make a real difference?

McHUGH: Kevin Haley and his team of designers at the Under Armour Innovation Lab in Baltimore, Maryland have spent more than two years developing the suit. It's made from materials such as nylon, spandex, and polyester. These materials are sewn together in a way that improves the aerodynamics of Davis and his teammates.   

HALEY: There are a number of different components to the suit.  It's not a, you know, single piece of fabric.  It's actually a number of different textiles, and even little bits and pieces on top of the textile to create the fastest suit.

McHUGH:  Many apparel makers design competition suits for athletes in all types of sports. And whether it's designed for speed skating, downhill skiing or bobsledding, its primary goal is to make the athlete more aerodynamic.

McHUGH: Sarah Morgan is a professor of polymer science at the University of Southern Mississippi and receives funding from the National Science Foundation.

Dr. SARAH MORGAN (University of Southern Mississippi): We want to use a compressive suit that will help to compress the muscles that will help to cover up things like the hair.

McHUGH: As Davis skates around the track, the main impediment to his progress is friction.  Friction occurs as his arms rub against his body and his legs come into contact with each other.

Dr. MORGAN: Friction is the force that resists movement of two objects past each other.  So friction is the resistance force. So if I try to move my hands past each other that’s a friction between two solid surfaces.

McHUGH: Part of Dr. Morgan's research involves developing a friction-reducing substance called POSS which can be used to coat objects. 

Dr. MORGAN:  The POSS coated system has small little ridges on the surface and that decreases contact between the two surfaces.

McHUGH: As Davis skates, he also encounters another type of friction called drag, which is the resistance of the air moving across his body.

Dr. MORGAN:  Drag is the component of friction that occurs when a solid body is trying to move through a fluid like air or water.  Fish encounter drag when they're trying to move through the water, or humans do too, when we're trying to swim or when we're trying to run or trying to skate.

McHUGH: Under Armour spent much of its focus on creating a competition suit that reduces drag against the athlete.

HALEY: You want something that really slips through the air and doesn't add any wind resistance, as well as any resistance to your limbs as you move along the track.

McHUGH: To build the right suit, Haley and his team used motion capture technology to determine how the athletes move on the ice, then created a series of mannequins that replicated a speed skater's most common body positions. Then they outfitted the mannequins in a variety of fabrics, textiles, and other materials and put them through wind tunnel tests to decide which ones worked the best.

HALEY: There's some that are very smooth and don't allow any air penetration.  And then there's some fabrics that are very open, almost like a mesh, and the air flows through them. and then there’s seams connecting those two fabrics that are strategically placed so that you create the fastest suit possible. 

Finally, on top of all of the fabric and the textiles, we have, what are little flow-molded bits. You can barely see it, but it's disrupting the air just enough to create the better aerodynamics that allow the athlete to travel more quickly and hopefully make the athlete more likely to win.

McHUGH: Finally, the suit must feel like a second skin to the athlete, where he or she feels comfortable with its range of motion not just during competition, but also during the long hours of practice.

DAVIS:  All those hours I put into my training, the hours, the days, the months, the weeks, the years and then my training's gonna come out this given day. I finish the race and if look up and I see the time on the board, says, "Davis, number one." 

McHUGH: With a competition suit designed to reduce friction and drag and make him more aerodynamic, Shani Davis may be the skater to beat in Sochi.