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Elite Athlete To You: What Goes Into The Clothing We Play In?

Canadian Olympic snowboarder Mike Michalchuk
Canadian Olympic snowboarder Mike Michalchuk

When we head out to buy gear, we know what we want. And we expect to find it. If we’re off to the slopes we have simple needs, right? We want to be warm, dry and comfortable. But ever stop to think about what goes into putting that kind of gear into our hands and onto our backs?

Faze spent some time with one of the leaders in sports innovation and research, Mario Lafortune. As the director of Nike’s global sports research lab, Mario works with the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, soccer sensation Mia Hamm, tennis’s Lleyton Hewitt, and more recently, Canadian Olympic snowboarder Mike Michalchuk, in order to figure out exactly what they need to excel at their sport.

Mario Lafortune and Bruny Surin
Canadian Olympic gold medalist Bruny Surin speeds it up for the cameras.

Mike Michalchuk (pictured at the top of the article), who has been riding the slopes for 12 years, says he has a lot of input into what gets produced. When he speaks with Mario, they talk about designing elements in the gear that will help him on the hill: “I tell them that I need something that will keep me dry and warm and has flexibility, because there’s so much movement in the pipe and you need to be able to stretch, move around, and do flips and spins.”

Mike also throws in some other practical requirements and says, “I also wanted longer sleeves so I don’t rip off my elbows when I bail.”

Mario Bros: Mario Lafortune and Mario Lemieux
Super Mario Brothers? Nike’s Mario Lafortune (left) has a laugh with Hockey Hall of Famer, Mario Lemieux.

Mario gives us the step-by-step as to how the whole process unfolds:

  • First, they observe different athletes and decide if there is a need for a new or better product.
  • Then they speak to people using the product — not to just one athlete, but several in the form of a focus group — to find out what they’d like to see in the product.
  • Then they observe some more. They carefully scrutinize every motion to see exactly what the athlete is doing. They will go on site, film the athlete, and return to the labs to study what is happening to the equipment or garment when the athlete moves.
  • Mario says they have approximately 30 researchers in the lab, as well as 15 university research partners, who will all work together to try to understand the needs of the athlete.
  • Based on the lab observations, they set up design parameters defining what they need.
  • Then they speak with the designers and developers about those parameters and ask them to come up with a product that fits their requirements.
  • Mario says that past research has clearly proven that when our bodies overheat, our performance declines, so controlling body temperature is always an important feature they are constantly striving to improve.
  • The team produces a concept and evaluation begins.
  • The test product is given to the athlete to begin practical field testing.
  • The athletes report back on what they experienced, what worked, what didn’t, and what they feel still needs to be done.
  • Back to the lab for modifications.
  • Back to the athlete for more testing.
  • Finally, a product is developed that meets the design parameters and criteria.
  • Off to production and into the stores!

It’s a long process that can take up to two years. We may have to wait to shell out our coin for the latest technology, but in the end, we usually get what we pay for.

Tiger Woods Nike Testing
Tiger doesn’t mind getting wired up for some serious testing.

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