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Exceptional
Brian Cazeneuve
February 20, 2006
Timely support from family and friends helped Chad Hedrick, a.k.a. the Exception, get on track and win the first of what could be a fistful of gold medals
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February 20, 2006

Exceptional

Timely support from family and friends helped Chad Hedrick, a.k.a. the Exception, get on track and win the first of what could be a fistful of gold medals

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When Chad Hedrick walked into Turin's Cabrera Tennis Club, which has been converted into the USOC hospitality center for the Olympics, a voice called out from the hallway near the front door, " Chad, please, a quick picture." More requests followed as the speedskater inched his way toward the dining room last Saturday night: "Get your dad in the next one.... And your sister." Given the crowd of 30 family members and friends who made the trip from Texas, there were enough combinations of Hedricks to keep the digital cameras buzzing.

In all, Chad posed for 16 photos and received a dozen hugs while making his way to a plate of pasta at his table. "I'm starving," he said, taking a seat. Not so fast. " Chad, there's a camera crew outside," a U.S. team rep said to him. "We're not letting them in, but would you mind if...."

"Absolutely, sir," he said, grabbing his coat. "Gotta give 'em the lowdown."

About four hours earlier Hedrick, 28, had won the first U.S. gold medal at the Turin Games in stirring fashion, skating the 5,000 meters in 6:14.68, six seconds off the world record but an impressive time given the slow Olympic ice. With three individual races (the 1,000, 1,500 and 10,000 meters) and the team pursuit to come over the next 13 days, Hedrick had a shot at four more medals.

That would be a fitting achievement for Hedrick, who grew from a boy scooting around his dad's roller rink in their hometown of Spring, 20 miles north of Houston, to a world champion in-line skater, to an Olympic gold medalist on the oval three years after he first put on long-track skates. "I was raised a winner," Hedrick said earlier in the week. "I see myself on that top step [of the podium] a few times. I'm going to enjoy every moment of the Olympics."

The day before his gold medal effort, Hedrick lived up to the nickname given him by teammate Derek Parra: the Exception. He eschewed the bromide that athletes competing on the first day of competition should skip the opening ceremonies to save their legs from stiffening in the cold. "I may never march in another one," he says. "I was jumping and screaming, feeling the spirit. My competitors who stayed at the village were not skating off that high."

Hedrick craves sensory stimuli; he parties and sightsees when he travels, often blurring the line between prerace moderation and postrace revelry. This time, however, he spent 12 days in Italy taking it easy before his first race and found his mind wandering. "I started thinking about things you don't need to think about," he said, "like if my skate was really sharpened. Lots of dumb stuff but some personal stuff too."

Last Saturday not only marked Hedrick's Olympic debut but also the 13th anniversary of the death of his grandmother Geraldine from brain cancer. When he woke up that day, his thoughts turned to the woman he called Nanny, who imbued him with his charm. "Chaddy, boy," she would tell him, "you're such an outstanding gentleman." It made him feel so good, he would hold a door, tip his cap and throw out a "Thank you, ma'am" just to hear her say it again. He wrote NANNY and the date of her death on the boot of his right skate and imagined what she would say if she could see him now. Filled with emotion, Chad also sent a text message to his father, Paul. "I love you guys," it read. "It's showtime. If you need anything, call me."

By the time he arrived at the Oval Lingotto, Hedrick could barely sit still. In a two-hour span he made four trips to the training room--to loosen his neck and lower back, to massage his legs and stretch. When Bart Schouten, his Dutch-born coach, approached him about an hour before the 5,000, Hedrick broke down. " Chad, you've never been like this," Schouten said. "What is it?"

"Little bit of everything, I guess," Hedrick said. "Been skating since I was two. Now I'm here."

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