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Detrás de los deslumbrantes leotardos de los gimnastas estadounidenses para los Juegos Olímpicos de París

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READING, Pa. — It starts as a piece of fabric in a busy Pennsylvania factory, and by the time it travels to Paris inside a gymnast’s suitcase, its value tops the cost of many wedding dresses. In a couple of weeks, these leotards will become some of the most visible garments of the Olympics, both because the U.S. women’s gymnastics team will aim to rack up medals while wearing them and because the sparkly designs are impossible to miss. Each gymnast’s set of eight competitive leotards includes more than 47,000 crystals.

These Olympic designs are the result of a two-year process headed by GK Elite, a leotard company and partner of USA Gymnastics. It reached a dramatic unveil when the athletes received boxes with all eight leotards the day after they earned spots on the U.S. Olympic team.

The Team USA leotards

These are digital renderings of the eight designs created by GK Elite for the U.S. athletes to wear at the Paris Olympics.

leotard mocks

Some of the leotards feature obvious nods to the American flag, and many seek to tie in elements of Parisian fashion or art. Certain elements are flashy; others have subtle flair. These are not available to the public, but the estimated retail cost of each is about $3,000.

“I think about how special the moments are, especially the Olympic Games, with it only being once every four years, and how they’re going to feel,” said Annie Heffernon, vice president of the women’s program at USA Gymnastics. “Regardless of their performance, I want them to feel amazing and beautiful when they go out and represent the U.S. in a leotard that they can be proud of.”

sparkle break

How the leotards are made

Step 1

Several layers of fabric are cut into the shapes required for the leotard according to a pattern designed to minimize waste.

Step 2

During the sublimation process, designs are printed onto sheets of paper and heat-transferred onto the fabric. A machine that heats to 450 degrees “turns the ink into a gas and fuses it into the fabric,” GK Elite director of marketing Erica Schnebel said. “And what we’re left with is a custom fabric.” For this Olympic leotard, the printed design mimics lace on the upper body and the sleeves.

Step 3

Multiple pieces of fabric are held together by temporary glue, then sewn.

Step 4

The logos of USA Gymnastics and GK Elite are embroidered in thread onto the leotards.

Step 5

A rhinestone-transfer machine individually places crystals onto heat-transfer paper according to the digital design. Those crystals are adhered to the fabric. There is glue on the back of each crystal that is activated by heat.

Step 6

Some crystals are applied individually with their placements guided by a laser. This method is used along necklines and near seams. Other crystals are hand-placed with tweezers.

Step 7

The front and back of the leotard are sewn together at the sides, top and bottom.

sparkle break

Dressing for success

Even before the U.S. team headed to the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, casual conversations about the Paris designs had begun. GK Elite design director Jeanne Diaz remembers elegance as an early priority. Heffernon, the primary liaison between USA Gymnastics and GK Elite during this process, said she thought with the Olympics in Paris, “It’s going to be, for lack of a better word, fancy, right?” The leotards, they believed, should match.

In 2022, Diaz and her small team of designers crafted mood boards with photos of dresses and patterns that together look more like the inspiration for a high-end fashion show than for a sporting event. In early 2023, the design team began working on digital sketches of possible leotards, landing on about 15 to present to USA Gymnastics.

By the summer, GK Elite had manufactured about a dozen samples and brought them to a major competition. Diaz and another staffer met with Heffernon along with Chellsie Memmel and Alicia Sacramone Quinn, who are on the high-performance staff. They asked a gymnast — a longtime elite who didn’t compete at the Olympic trials but has represented the country at international competitions — to try them on. Heffernon said they chose this gymnast, whom she declined to name, because she is trustworthy and willing to share her honest opinions. This process is “kind of top-secret,” said Heffernon, who doesn’t show the designs to many colleagues.

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There were some experimental options in the mix, Heffernon said, remembering “​​some satiny pleated stuff that didn’t actually pan out.” A retro, V-neck design — with red on one side, blue on the other and a line of stars and stripes down the side — started as a long-sleeved competitive design but turned into a training tank leotard.

The USA Gymnastics staffers chose their preferred eight leotards — at times leaning on Diaz for guidance — and then GK Elite focused its efforts on fine-tuning the eventual Olympic designs. As the Olympics approached, each leotard moved through the factory in Reading, Pa., transforming from a slice of fabric into a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted final product.

This year’s designs are undeniably patriotic. At the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, the U.S. gymnasts wore leotards that incorporated hot pink, magenta and shades of purple. The leotards for the team finals were red, but Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas won their all-around gold medals while wearing pink.

Gabby Douglas won the all-around gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics wearing a pink leotard. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Martha Karolyi led the national team at the time, and “in selection, pink was a favored color by far,” said Kelly McKeown, who worked at GK Elite from 2006 to 2018 and was the chief design officer for a decade. McKeown knew fans asked, “Where’s the pink in our flag?” But Karolyi’s preference is what counted.

“It mattered what Martha thought because she was in charge and ultimately it was her decision,” said McKeown, who now oversees international business at Ozone, another leotard company that outfits the Brazilian women’s gymnastics team.

Ahead of the 2016 Games, Karolyi’s last as the national team coordinator, the federation changed course. Finally, there was a push to reflect the colors of the flag in the leotard designs. In Rio de Janeiro, the designs featured only red, white and blue.

Ever since, USA Gymnastics has been committed to patriotic themes in its leotards, particularly at the Olympics, while different tones — including light blues, purples and pinks — have been incorporated into the designs for the world championships.

When describing the shift in the color palette, Matt Cowan, the CEO of Elite Sportswear, the parent company that includes the GK Elite brand, said that in the past “it was singular points of decision, and now it’s more inclusive and it’s much broader. I think that is a representation of new leadership [at USA Gymnastics].”

sparkle break

The eight leotard designs are given names such as “Sovereign Sparkle” and “Luminous Legacy” and grouped into segments intended to evoke certain feelings. The first includes overtly patriotic leotards that feature strong lines. Diaz described that section as “tough and powerful,” so she also wanted the opposite. The next group leans into femininity with designs inspired by art nouveau and old Hollywood glamour. Two of those leotards include ombré colors with swirling crystal designs, and the other is white with pearls. The final two leotards are meant to reflect Paris’s nickname, the City of Light.

If a gymnast qualifies for individual finals on each day of the women’s competition in Paris, she would need seven leotards. (Gymnasts typically do not re-wear a leotard on multiple days of competition.) The team members match for the official training session, the qualifying round and the team final, and then athletes choose their own leotards for individual finals. A few “emergency sets” also will be brought to Paris, Cowan said.

Just one design has been earmarked for a specific competition. In the team final, the gymnasts will wear a white leotard with a blue, star-patterned sleeve and diagonal red lines across the body. The design pays homage to the leotard worn in 1996, when the U.S. women won their first team gold. McKeown designed that 1996 leotard when she worked at a different company. At the time, she said USA Gymnastics wanted designs that were “clean, classic and regal,” with a preference for white leotards that highlighted the gymnast’s abdominal muscles.

The ideal team final leotard, Diaz said, considers the stature and skin tone of all gymnasts. Among the eight leotards for Paris, this one most strongly mirrored the U.S. flag, so it seemed to be the right fit. From there, Heffernon said, the group of decision-makers just wanted to make this design feel “more team final-y, which just means a lot more sparkle.” Ultimately, it became the heaviest leotard at 0.8 pounds.

go for glory leo

Crystal usage has exploded over the past two decades, thanks to improving technology and machinery. Liukin’s leotard in the all-around final in 2008 had 184 crystals, and Douglas’s in 2012 featured 1,188, according to the New York Times. Those numbers have grown to around 10,000 on some leotards, and the U.S. athletes have yet to indicate they want fewer crystals. Elite Sportswear purchased 90 million Swarovski crystals last year, and those embellishments are the primary driver of the cost of the Olympic leotards.

“I think we’ve hit the maximum crystal threshold,” McKeown said. “We’re pretty maxed out on sparkle and shine.”

luminous legacy leo

Most jewels are applied to leotards through a heat-transfer process that adheres entire sheets of crystal designs to the fabric at once. Others, especially those near the neckline and seams or crystals in densely packed arrangements, involve more manual work.

sovereign sparkle leo

In Tokyo, one of the designs became known among the gymnasts as “our lucky leo,” MyKayla Skinner said. Sunisa Lee (all-around gold), Jade Carey (floor gold) and Skinner (vault silver) each won an individual medal when wearing it.

When McKeown worked at GK Elite and oversaw the design of the U.S. leotards, black was off-limits because it was considered bad luck, she said. Some fans have noted several high-profile mistakes from athletes wearing all-white leotards, but when asked about that superstition, Jordan Chiles said she had never heard of a white-leotard curse and remembered winning a world championships medal on vault while wearing a white design.

freedom grace leo

Two leotards have crystal designs that pull from the fluid lines and curves of art nouveau. Both were initially presented with pastel options; one had a dusty blue and purple gradient, while the other featured maroon-to-blush ombré. USA Gymnastics opted for the more patriotic versions.

american anthem leo

usa elegance leo

The designers ensure the leotards do not accentuate potential deductions. For instance, Diaz said she avoids striping from an athlete’s hip through her sleeve because that makes it easier for a judge to notice a break in form.

patriotic poise leo

GK Elite surveyed national team athletes in 2022 about their preferences in leotards. The gymnasts said they liked red, white and blue designs. And when asked about fabrics, some of the athletes’ feedback mentioned they appreciated hints of velvet.

star spangled shine leo

just sparkles

After months of refining the designs, the complicating factor is that the Olympic team was named June 30 — less than three weeks before the athletes depart for Paris.

Entering the trials, “it is not our responsibility to think about who is on the team and who is not on the team,” Cowan said.

So GK Elite prepared for every potential Olympian. The company had measurements for each national team athlete and knew what size each gymnast needed. Sixteen gymnasts advanced to the trials, and GK Elite brought 22 complete sets of the leotards to the competition. None of the athletes had seen the designs — “A lot of them wouldn’t want to do it — like, ‘I’m not jinxing that,’” Cowan said — so the day after the trials turned into the grand reveal.

Like fashion or art, leotard designs generate divisive opinions among gymnastics fans. The athletes begin picking their favorites at first glimpse. Soon, the memories of what is accomplished by the U.S. gymnasts will be attached to whichever design they wore on that day. It’s just a piece of fabric, but for a couple of weeks in Paris, it’ll be the flash of color and sparkle that accompanies each gymnast’s every move.

“It’s important to feel confident and good about yourself,” Heffernon said, “when you’re going out to try to accomplish one of the greatest achievements in your life.”

About this story

Photography by Michelle Gustafson. Video by Hadley Green. Photo editing by Toni L. Sandys. Video producing by Jessica Koscielniak. Design and development by Brianna Schroer, Aadit Tambe and Agnes Lee. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Editing by Matthew Rennie. Copy editing by Brad Windsor.

Leotard digital sketches courtesy of GK Elite.

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