The US women's gymnastics team is dominating the competition at this year's Olympics in Rio—both with their sick flips and their sparkly leotards. We spoke on the phone with Kelly McKeown, chief design officer and EVP of corporate relations for GK Elite, which has been making Team USA's Olympic leotards since 2000. Turns out there's a lot more to these leotards than just spandex and Swarovski crystals.
1. It takes two years to design and produce the leotards worn by the US gymnastics team at the Olympics.
"There's a lot of research and development that goes into it," says Kelly. "It's something you don't want to rush. If you want to use a new technique, if you want to experiment, then you have to wear-test it, you have to wash-test it, you have to make sure that it's not going to fail on the competition floor."
2. Sleeveless leotards are considered unpolished for competition, but covering your legs is frowned upon.
According to Kelly, there is no rule against covering your legs, but when it does happen, people always notice and comment on it. Even if that wasn't the case, Kelly doesn't believe any of the women on the US team would choose to do it. "There's a lot of beauty that can be put into the arm of a leotard that is part of the showmanship when you're moving your arms around and the design is so beautiful," says Kelly. "but I think it would be a little too much to have the legs covered and with all the tumbling that they do, I don't think they would ever want that.
"There are athletes from countries with religious rules about skin exposure that have worn [coverings on their legs], but I haven't seen that at the Olympics. I don't think those countries are really that highly involved in the sport at this level. I can't speak with absolute authority on that, but I've been in the industry for a long time and I know I've seen long legs, but in a random case where everybody talks about it like Oh my gosh! Did you see that?"
3. Every leotard is custom made to fit the athlete's body perfectly.
"The athletes have such extreme body types that there is no way we could just cut a standard pattern," says Kelly. "For example, Simone Biles is incredibly muscular, but she's a mighty little package, so she has big shoulder and very little hips, so literally every part of her leotard is custom."
This custom fit is how Kelly ensures that the leotards don't bunch or ride up when the athletes are competing. In other words, no wedgies or camel toes.
4. Athletes get up to three fittings for each leotard, the same number of fittings most women get for a wedding dress!
Kelly and her team travel directly to the athletes, meeting up with them at competitions and training facilities to conduct the fittings in person. First, every athlete is measured. Then, prototype suits are brought for key athletes to try on before they are produced for the team as a whole.
It takes about four to six weeks to produce each leotard, at which point they are brought to the athletes for a preliminary fitting. The leotards are then adjusted and a second fitting is conducted just a few days before heading to the Olympics.
Usually, only two fittings are needed, but sometimes, due to training or stress, athletes bodies go through significant changes between the first and second fittings, in which case a third fitting is added, just to make sure everything is as close to perfect as possible.
5. Athletes also get custom bras and briefs to wear underneath their leotards.
These are essential because exposed underwear can result in a deduction at competitions like the Olympics.
6. The athletes do not get to pick their own leotards.
They offer their opinions at fittings and when testing out prototypes, but coach Marta Karolyi has the final say.
7. A female gymnast's Olympic wardrobe can cost up to $12,000 and many of the pieces will never even be seen at the Olympics.
Each member of the US women's gymnastics team gets 12 practice leotards, which cost between $60 and $200 each, and 8 competition leotards, which cost between $700 and $1200 each depending on how many crystals are used in the design. With only four competition days and most members of the team not competing all four days, that means that many of the leos go unseen at the Olympics, although the athletes are welcome to wear them at other competitions later.
8. The leotards worn by Team USA in the qualification round had almost 5000 crystals each.
GK Elite only uses Swarovski crystals, which is part of why the leotards are so expensive.
9. The gymnasts do not pay for their competition wardrobes.
USA Gymnastics, the national governing board for the sport of gymnastics in the United States, covers all those costs and more.
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