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A star is reborn

Italy's Fabris stole thunder from supposed showdown

Posted: Tuesday February 21, 2006 2:35PM; Updated: Tuesday February 21, 2006 6:41PM
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Enrico Fabris won the gold in the 1,500 meters behind a raucous Italian home crowd.
Enrico Fabris won the gold in the 1,500 meters behind a raucous Italian home crowd.
Al Tielemans/SI
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TURIN, Italy -- Leave it to an Italian heartthrob to spoil an American soap opera.

Enrico Fabris: Remember the name, because he has suddenly become as famous in this city as Fiat and gelato. The 24-year-old Italian, an Adrien Brody lookalike who enjoys playing the electric guitar, put a charge into the Oval Lingotto on Tuesday that his countrymen will not soon forget.

While the attention Stateside centered on the icy relationship between pre-race favorites Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis, Fabris won the men's 1,500-meter long-track speedskating final in stunning fashion. Skating in the 17th of 21 parings, Fabris clocked in at 1 minute, 45.97 seconds and then endured an agonizing wait to see if any of the eight remaining skaters could skate him down.

They could not.

The atmosphere at the Oval was electrifying. As always, the Dutch were heavy in attendance, a sea of orange led by the famed "Kleintje Pils," the 11-piece pep band that played with its customary funky pizzazz. Olympic stars (including Sarah Hughes) and broadcasters (Matt Lauer) filled the arena, alongside a healthy contingent of Norwegians and Americans.

When Fabris stood on the ice for his heat, skating alongside Simon Kuipers of the Netherlands, the arena reached a fever pitch. The Italian skated with measured purpose, soaring past Italian flags flying in the air and signs that read "Forza Enrico." When Fabris crossed the line in 1:45.97, the place erupted. Kuipers skated a terrific race but would eventually finish fourth in 1:46.58.

Next came another heavyweight, Dutchman Erben Wennemars, who lumbered in at 1:46.71. Derek Parra's heat followed, but the Salt Lake City gold medal winner was never a factor and finished 19th. Two pairs remained, and as if understanding the magnitude of the moment, the public address announcer boomed: "We're down to two pairs, four athletes to come."

The first of those athletes was Hedrick, the 28-year-old Texan who lined up on the outer lane against Russian Yvegny Lalenkov. Hedrick, the world-record holder, was the pre-race favorite. He and Davis had each won gold medals already in Turin (Davis in the 1,000 and Hedrick in the 5,000) and both knew that back in NBC-land, this on-ice showdown would be played up like a speedskating skins game between Tiger and Phil.

Hedrick kicked his skate into the ice three times. Then he was off. His 700-meter split left him in sixth place at 49.94, and by the 1,100-meter mark he had improved to third at 1:17.50. He had left his Russian counterpart in the dust, and as the crowd rose, he crossed the line in 1:46.22. Fabris leaped into his coaches' arms, and a silver medal for Italy was a lock.

But gold still shined in the distance for Italy. Now it was Davis' turn to try to become the first American to double up at these Games. On a day it was expected to be Chad vs. Shani, who could have guessed it would be Enrico vs. America?

With flashbulbs popping and the crowd on edge, Davis false-started. The announcer asked for silence and the big screen showed the Italian looking anxious. They lined up again, the gun sounded and Davis pushed away. He quickly left Aleksandr Kobalko behind. His 700-meter split was 49.59, the third best of the day, and he cruised in at 1,100 meters in 1:16.96, faster than all but American Joey Cheek. As Davis headed for the finish, the crowd rose and so did Fabris. We all stood up and watched the screen: 1:46.13.

Not enough.

The Italian team encircled Fabris and he was lost in a group hug. Davis shrugged and smiled, as if he knew it was the Italian's day. ("He was the strongest skater and he showed how the crowd amplified him to a new level," said Davis afterward.)

Fabris had finished 26th in this event in Salt Lake City. Now someone in the crowd was tossing him his country's flag for him to unfurl during a victory lap. He had won his third medal of the Games (he took bronze in the 5,000 and gold in the team pursuit event). Fabris circled the rink, and Davis graciously hugged him. Fabris received a call from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi following the race.

"He congratulated me, saying that he wants to meet me after the Olympics," said Fabris. "He told me I am writing the history of the sport and the best is yet to come."

Right now, things can't get better. During the flower ceremony, after Davis and Hedrick had been announced for their medals and politely, if icily, clapped for each other, Fabris leaped onto the top of the podium and raised his hands in the air. The banners in the crowd told the story: "Grazie, Enrico."