It was a scene that would have been truly perplexing to the average onlooker.
Daron Rahlves, the most decorated downhill and Super G male skier in U.S. history, was inside the San Diego Wind Tunnel with a wooden blade relentlessly hurling 70-mile-per-hour gusts right at him. He wore a helmet, goggles, and mittens, as well as his boots and skis, which were strapped firmly to the ground in an industrial manner. On the rest of his body was a white speed suit that appeared to be from the future, with curved blue and red stripes. A team of engineers and ski industry big-names observed this situation through a thick glass window—writing detailed notes, conversing back and forth.
“I had a mic in my ear and, on the other side of the glass, they had a test picture of me on a screen,” explains Rahlves. “On the test picture, they had an outline that helped me get in the exact same body position over and over. They’d coach me—tell to move my hands up a little bit more, or rock backwards a little bit.”
Let’s be clear: Rahlves ain’t no lab rat. Anybody who’s anybody knows he’s more of a cheetah with rocket boosters than anything. And that’s exactly why he was the perfect test subject for that crazy white speed suit. It’s called the Velocity18, a suit that’s been long in the works and expected to provide crucial help at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Spyder, brand partner of the U.S. Ski Team since 1989, claims this is the fastest speed suit they’ve ever made. Take one glance at it and you’ll have a hard time disagreeing; the white-lightning aesthetic accompanied by sleek, patriotic stripes looks anything but slow. The nitty-gritty technical details can’t be released to the general public right now (you wouldn’t want the Austrians and Norwegians and everyone else knowing what’s up the Americans’ sleeves, would you?), so just trust this: the Velocity18 is a modern marvel in the world of ski racing, and those who wear it will go very, very fast.
“The U.S. Ski Team is a major passion point for the Spyder brand,” said Brady Collings, Vice President of Marketing for Spyder, in a recent press release. “We know that every hundredth of a second counts in winning a race, so we work in painstaking detail to ensure every technical advancement is employed, every athlete is body mapped with perfect precision, and every last aspect of design and development of our race suits is thoughtfully considered so that we can continue to deliver on our promise to elevate the performance of every athlete that wears Spyder products.”
In addition to Rahlves, a variety of current U.S. Ski Team athletes have been involved with this suit’s development, including none other than Steven Nyman. And, although he recently suffered a tough ACL injury, the time and effort Nyman put towards the Velocity18 will be incredibly beneficial to his teammates.
“We got to test a bunch of different combinations of materials, patterns, and suit cuts to determine what was the fastest,” says Nyman. “And while we’ve always been searching for the best suit possible, this is the Olympics. There’s an even bigger push for something that’s strong and above the rest. It’s been quite intensive.”
Rahlves adds that, while it may seem crazy, all of the hard work put into these suits is totally worth it. When it comes to ski racing—and the Olympics, in particular—no details can be spared.
“The equipment is so good already in this day and age that it’s hard to find new gains,” says Rahlves. “But, over time, when you crunch the numbers in a two-minute downhill race, for example, a little bit of an advantage with one piece of equipment can add up quite a bit throughout the duration of a run. If you can find that advantage in the wind tunnel, that’s a huge deal in our world of ski racing.”
Troy Taylor, High Performance Director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, explained in the aforementioned press release that the wind tunnel tests gave everyone a chance to understand the wide variety of speeds these suits will go through, procuring the need for a complicated mixture of fabrics placed throughout the design.
“In skiing, drag at 60 to 80 miles per hour in a tuck is different than 40 to 50 in a turn, and the fastest material at one speed may not be the fastest at another speed,” said Taylor. “The wind tunnel tests looked very positive, and I expect this suit to be extremely competitive.”
Again, the details behind these materials can’t be released at this time, for obvious reasons. But what you can know is that some of the involved fabrics are so delicately high-tech that the Velocity18 is a one-use-only suit. These are built to excel one race at a time, then they’ll be used for training or passed down to junior racers. And, although this development process has been fully geared towards the 2018 Games, these are the suits U.S. Ski Team racers will be using for the next several years—most likely ’till the next Games come around.
It’s been a long and complicated process getting the Velocity18 up and running. From start to finish, countless individuals have tirelessly collaborated from the drawing board to the wind tunnel to the mountains. But, at the end of the day—despite all of the wild details being scoured over—these upcoming races in South Korea are not about the gear. They’re about the fastest skiers on Earth going balls-to-the-wall fast and doing whatever it takes, with their own power, to achieve Olympic glory.
“Everybody’s fired up and the whole world’s watching,” says Nyman. “I hope the guys trust everything that’s on them: their skis, their boots, their suits. Everything.”
Rahlves echoes that sentiment, wholeheartedly.
“At the end of the day, you can have all the fastest gear in the world, but you still have to get in the gate and get your job done.”