Today, Witty's talent prompts comparisons to Bonnie Blair, America's last speed skating star. But the two are not much alike. At 5'6" and 160 pounds, Witty is two inches taller than Blair and outweighs her by 20 chiseled pounds. In contrast with Blair's impeccable technique, Witty's skating style is pure power. Both women are what U.S. coach Gerard Kemkers calls "big-race skaters." It's unlikely, though, that Blair would ever be found at the Black Dragon tattoo parlor, as Witty was last year, getting Notre Dame's mascot needled into her hip.
Pressed for something, anything, that she and Blair have in common, Witty offers an answer: They both like TV. "I remember us fighting over the remote once in Europe," Witty says, grinning again. "Bonnie wanted CNN. I like MTV."
Skating around in circles ain't exactly rocket science. Or is it? When word got out that the Dutch had come up with the clapskate, the first major technological innovation to hit speed skating this century, U.S. Speedskating, the sport's national governing body, got a call from NASA offering the use of its engineers, facilities—anything to help out. The skating federation has yet to take the space agency up on its offer, but NASA's interest underscores the extent to which the clap-skate has turned the sport on its ear.
Developed at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, the clapskate—so called because of the clap-clap noise it makes—is a standard skating boot with a blade that's hinged at the toe. It allows skaters to get maximum propulsion by keeping the blade on the ice as they fully extend their knee and ankle with each stride. Dutch women began using the skates in competition in 1996 and in short order were rewriting the record book. That had members of the U.S. team, which has had the skates only since last summer, coming unhinged. U.S. Speedskating president Bill Cushman likened using clapskates to playing baseball with a corked bat, but in Nagano every American will be wearing them.
Among the seven world records to tumble last year was Bonnie Blair's 500-meter mark, which Canadian clapper Catriona LeMay Doan reduced from 38.69 seconds to 37.55. "Records are made to be broken," says Blair, the recently retired five-time Olympic gold medalist, "but you like to see them broken on the same, level playing field. It's not that I'm not for change, but technology is taking over. I liked it better when it was a pure sport, about talent and technique and strength, not what kind of skate you had."