Rodriguez speed skates his way to be the first Floridian to qualify for Winter Olympics

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2002

KEARNS, Utah -- It's starting to appear as if the pre-Olympic hype and expectations are starting to wear on Jennifer Rodriguez.

The first Florida native to qualify for the Winter Olympics, and one of the few Americans of Hispanic descent to do so, Rodriguez became testy with reporters Sunday after her American record time in the women's 3000 meters speed skating event was good for only seventh place.

What did she have to feel bad about? Finishing ahead of her, after all, were three women who all bettered the existing world record, and another who just missed it.

Germany's Claudia Pechstein broke her world mark of 3:59.26 with a 3:57.70 effort that earned her a third Olympic gold medal. Taking second was Renate Groenewold of the Netherlands, who raced in the heat after Pechstein but fell short in clocking a 3:58.94. Canada's Cindy Klassen was pulled to the

bronze in Pechstein's heat with a 3:59.97 performance.

Rodriguez and Germany's Anni Friesinger skated two heats ahead of Pechstein's winning run, and Friesinger made her own run at the previous record. She just missed, and her 3:59.39 was good for only fourth.

She also took the steam out of Rodriguez' legs early.

Keeping pace with Friesinger's record-bid pace for 4 of 7 1/2 laps in the

race, Rodriguez faded at the end and finished in 4:04.99. It was the best race of her life, though you wouldn't have known it from her comments afterward. Especially when asked to assess her medal chances in three future races.

"I don't put percentages on my chances, only you guys do that," she told reporters.

"Like I said going into these games, I definitely have a shot at the medals podium in these next few races, but that's not all I'm looking for. It's all you guys are looking for; it's all you guys care about. But I'm looking for a personal best."

Trying to keep up with Friesinger's torrid early pace took something out of her late, Rodriguez conceded.

"But if I'd started slower I'd have probably felt the same pain, but just

gone slower," she said testily. "It doesn't necesssarily mean I'd have hung on better."

Rodriguez, who was fourth in this event in the 1998 Nagano Games, thought she had been inspired by watching the men's 5,000 at the Utah Olympic Oval on Saturday. Twice in that race the world record was bettered, and America took a 2-5 finish with Derek Parra and K.C. Boutiette, who just happens to be her fiance.

"I was so proud of how he skated yesterday," Rodriguez said "I wasn't expecting that out of him. I don't think he was expecting it. I don't think anyone was expecting it. It was definitely an inspiration and made me think twice about how to race today. Maybe that's why I went out harder than usual."

Rodriguez, who never claimed the 3,000 as her speciality will come back again in the 500, 1000 and 1500 events next week. The expectations will not have diminished by then.

(Rick Dean, sports columnist for the Topeka Capital-Journal, is part of the team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics for Morris News Service).

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