When athletes in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, take center stage February 7-23, so will composites. The Olympics will feature 15 disciplines in seven sports – biathlon, bobsled (which includes skeleton), curling, ice hockey, luge, skating and skiing. And critical apparatus for all the events will incorporate composite materials.

Like the sports themselves, some of the composite applications are media darlings, such as skis and snowboards made from carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass. Others are less heralded. Composite materials provide ankle support in skates for hockey players, short-track athletes and speed skaters. Handles in curling brooms are constructed from carbon fiber to make them stronger and lighter. Some athletes in the biathlon use rifles with barrels wrapped in carbon fiber to reduce weight.

Olympic athletes often lead the charge to adopt new high-performance materials in their quest to shave hundredths of a second off their time in an event or safeguard themselves with protective equipment during crashes or collisions with competitors. The most significant material developments in this year’s Winter Olympics will likely be on display at the Sanki Sliding Center, site of the skeleton, bobsled and luge events. U.S. teams for all three disciplines hope to bring home medals thanks to sleek new sleds.

Customization of Skeleton Sleds

A few years ago Tuffy Latour, the coach of the U.S. skeleton team, contacted Hans deBot of deBotech Inc. to create a custom saddle for racer Katie Uhlaender. The carbon fiber and advanced composite parts manufacturer in Mooresville, N.C., had already produced an aerodynamic carbon fiber pod – the bottom portion of the sled – for the team. Now Latour wanted a saddle, which is affixed to the pod and includes handles, fitted specifically for Uhlaender. (Athletes lie face down on the saddle when they ride down the frozen track.)

deBot worked with supplier BSCI to pour a splash of Uhlaender’s body. “We put her on our surface table in riding position and poured a urethane casting of her body from her chest to hips,” says deBot. “From that, we digitally scanned the splash, modeled it on the computer and cut a pattern and tool to build her saddle.” The carbon fiber saddle was affixed to the pod, which features steel runners on the bottom.

Uhlaender ran the sled at the 2012 World Championship in Lake Placid, N.Y., and won by less than two-tenths of a second. “That provided a lot of motivation in the coaches’ eyes to do more,” says deBot. In preparation for the Sochi Olympics, deBotech has created custom saddles for three men’s skeleton racers as well as a new one for Uhlaender.