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Speed Thrills
S.L. Price
February 25, 2002
U.S. speed skaters Casey FitzRandolph and Chris Witty proved that the old guard still has the golden touch, while short-track and its star, Apolo Ohno, provided the buzz
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February 25, 2002

Speed Thrills

U.S. speed skaters Casey FitzRandolph and Chris Witty proved that the old guard still has the golden touch, while short-track and its star, Apolo Ohno, provided the buzz

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Those names floated on the frosty breath of everyone in Wisconsin in the 1980s, swam in the water that turned each winter to ice: Heiden and Blair and Jansen. Chris Witty and Casey FitzRandolph, born just four months and 75 miles apart, weren't like the kids elsewhere who only heard of speed skating's Olympic giants every four years. No, Witty grew up a mile from Dan Jansen's home in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, and FitzRandolph grew up skating on the same Madison rinks on which Eric Heiden sharpened his blades. Witty and FitzRandolph grew up knowing that Milwaukee and skating were synonymous with greatness.

Those names floated back into the 2002 Winter Olympics last week. There, on Sunday evening, was Bonnie Blair, now a member of the U.S. speed skating board of directors, swinging a cowbell in the stands of the Utah Olympic Oval and shouting "Way cool!" when she realized that Witty had somehow shrugged off mononucleosis and was on her way to winning a gold medal in the 1,000 meters in the world-record time of 1:13.83. There, five days earlier, was Heiden, now the physician for the U.S. speed-skating team, congratulating FitzRandolph after he became the first American since Heiden in 1980 to win the 500-meter gold. There, too, was Jansen, the most self-effacing TV commentator at the Games, prowling an Olympic hallway, and as the 26-year-old Witty made her restrained victory lap and the 27-year-old FitzRandolph marveled over how "so not worthy" he was to win, it was easy to take it in and see the sport as it always had been.

Indeed, though seven Americans, the most ever, won medals in the sport in the game's first nine days (with 18 overall medals through Sunday, the U.S. eclipsed its Winter record of 13), U.S. speed skating could've picked no one better than Witty as its headliner. During her formative years as a skater, her father, Walter, couldn't find a steady job for eight years after being laid off at a tractor factory, and the family of six lived off the salary of her mom, Diane, who worked in an insurance company's claims department until she, too, was laid off. Somehow Chris worked enough paper routes and odd jobs to pay for her skating. She won the only two U.S. speed skating medals—a silver and a bronze—in Nagano in 1998, but most of last year Witty had been afflicted by a lethargy she couldn't explain and hadn't won a race since last March. In the moments before coach Tom Cushman told her last month her ailment had been diagnosed as mononucleosis, Witty was certain he would tell her she was going to die.

Relieved that her exhaustion was treatable but knowing she had only weeks to train, Witty figured she had no hope of surpassing her performance in Nagano. She thought she might grab one bronze medal. Witty, though, gained strength over the last fortnight, and after finishing 14th in the 500 last Thursday, she entered her pairing with Canadian superstar Catriona LeMay Doan in Sunday's 1,000 feeling even better. Twice before, Witty had broken the world record racing against LeMay Doan. If she could stay with the two-time 500-meter gold medalist through the first half of the race, Witty figured, she'd have a shot at winning. Instead, she blew LeMay Doan and everyone else off the ice.

"I couldn't believe it," Witty said. "It's the most shocking result of my life. It's something you dream about as a kid: home country, world-record time, the gold medal. That's how I dreamed about it when I was nine."

However, as Witty knows, these Olympics mark what she calls "the end of an era." She and FitzRandolph are the last of a distinguished line, the generation of long-track skaters who grew up before clapskates revolutionized the sport, the last generation whose parents knew one another and frequented the same frozen ponds and thought of Milwaukee as their Mecca. Former in-line or roller skaters such as Mexican-American Derek Parra, a shocking silver medalist in the men's 5,000, and Cuban-American Jennifer Rodriguez, who took the bronze in the women's 1,000 on Sunday, have made balmy climes like Southern California and Miami as important to speed skating, and both the success of the U.S. team's altitude training in Utah and the astonishing speed of the Olympic oval—on which four world, and countless personal and national, records were shattered last week—have made Milwaukee's hegemony a thing of the past.

" Milwaukee will never be the center of speed skating in the United States again," says Jeff FitzRandolph, Casey's dad and a member of U.S. speed skating's board of directors. "There's just not the same philosophy toward speed skating in Milwaukee that there is in Salt Lake City now. They're not willing to put the money into it; they don't have the resources. Everything will move out here."

Says U.S. national coach Bart Schouten, "The national team will have to be here. This is the place to be."

Despite their success in Salt Lake City-Kip Carpenter and Joey Cheek also won surprise bronzes in the 500 and the 1,000 meters, respectively—the long-track skaters spent each day of this Olympics knowing that the public's attention was turning elsewhere. Suddenly, with 19-year-old Apolo Ohno in position to win perhaps four gold medals, short-track speed skating had become what U.S. coach Susan Ellis called "the hottest ticket in town." The short-track skaters easily sold out the Salt Lake Ice Center, with crowds of 16,500 drawn by the prospect of high speed, tight corners and bodies spinning out of control. If speed skating is a family, long-track is the straight-arrow brother, long respected by the community. Short-track, an Olympic sport for only 10 years, is the unruly brother who comes home tattooed and bloodied, and sleeps until noon. But he woke up in Salt Lake City last week, and he was a star.

Never mind that inside the sport, the race-fixing charges that had erupted at December's short-track Olympic trials in Salt Lake City still lingered. Both Ohno and teammate Rusty Smith were cleared by an independent arbitrator of accusations that they conspired to fix the 1,000-meter finals to get Ohno's friend, Shani Davis, on the Olympic squad, but that official finding did nothing to shake the near-universal conviction among those in the skating community who had seen the race that something suspicious had happened. Yet the controversy only seemed to give short-track more of a buzz, and a public that knows little about speed skating and less about short-track came to Salt Lake City ready to be wowed. "People already think these are Apolo's Olympics," Casey FitzRandolph said last Saturday.

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