NEW YORK -- Serena Williams knows what she wants to wear on the tennis court in Rio de Janeiro, where she will defend the women’s singles gold medal she won at the London 2012 Olympic Games and try for a fourth doubles title with sister Venus: Something chic and classic, with a blast of color and a mock turtleneck neckline.
And when athletes talk, Nike’s design team listens.
“The mock neck is something Serena just loves,” Michelle Miller, senior concept designer for Nike, said. “She’s worn it a couple of times, and she wanted to bring it back. We have a racerback (shoulder-baring) top for greater mobility. The dress is classic (navy) blue, and the bright red shoes are really minimal, based on Serena’s designs. They bring some pop to the look and bring it together in a great way.”
On Tuesday in New York City, Nike unveiled Team USA medal-stand uniforms as well as kits for track and field competitors; basketball teams; soccer teams; and tennis players. A dizzying array of state-of-the-art footgear was on display, as were curved sun shields designed to be less distracting than traditional hinged sunglasses.
Basketball legend Scottie Pippen, who played on two winning Olympic teams, ogled the red basketball kit with something close to envy.
“Wow, that’s nice,” the seven-time NBA All-Star said “I’m pretty impressed with the fabric. It’s probably three pounds lighter than what I wore playing for the (Chicago) Bulls.”
Designs were rooted in red, white and blue, but as Miller explained, Nike also took a few cues from the host country.
“We (infused) the energy of Brazil to create a beautiful, vibrant color palette,” she said. “Somebody on the team brought in the image of a feather, and it was the most beautiful blue you’ve ever seen. There were probably 50 shades making up this one amazing feather. So we got really excited about the idea of taking colors from the flag, and then extending them to add more energy.”
There is power in bright colors, but reducing aerodynamic drag and maximizing effort could help lift athletes to the podium. After all, at the 100-meter final of the 2015 world championships in Beijing, Justin Gatlin lost to Usain Bolt by just .01 seconds.
For Rio, the Nike team refined its AeroBlades, formed nodes that channel air around the athlete.
“At the London Games, we had dots on our kits, specifically for sprinters, to increase the aerodynamic wave and make the athletes faster,” Miller said. “For Rio, through the process of rapid prototyping, we’ve figured out triangular shapes make the most aerodynamic kit. In the past, they would only work if you were going over a certain speed; now they work for everyone, from a sprinter to a marathon runner.”
The triangular AeroBlades adorn sleek, one-piece running uniforms, as well as two-piece uniforms and optional forearm and calf sleeves. Michael Johnson, who sprinted to four gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000, gave the designs a huge thumbs-up.
“I think in the past we were a lot more focused on making sure the equipment was comfortable, but now the uniforms are actually helping you perform better,” he said. “The new material is lighter. There is less drag. (The uniforms) help athlete’s bodies cool down quicker; they’re able to wick away moisture, which is very cool.”
Almost as important, they look good.
“The colors are just fantastic,” Johnson said. “I like all of the different blues. The years I was fortunate enough to be on the Olympic team, the uniforms were always blue. Some years they have red, but I like the blue better.”
After viewing the designs, Johnson and Pippen, along with six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, shared some advice for athletes heading to the Games for the first time.
“(The Olympics) is the one time you can be selfish,” Joyner-Kersee said. “You may only have one opportunity — the Olympic opportunity is not guaranteed to come again, and neither is the next race. Have fun, but also listen to your coaches, listen to the people who helped you get there. Love your family, but tell them, ‘I can’t go there with you tonight, I need rest.’”
Johnson urged track and field athletes, whose U.S. Olympic Team Trials start on Friday, to keep their training and race preparation consistent.
“This is the time you really want to push and do more, but you have to balance that,” he said. “The main thing is to try and stay healthy. You have to make the team. Go to the trials and do the same process you’ve always done. That’s what has gotten you to this point.”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.