Olympics: women's 1,000 meter speedskating

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2002

KEARNS, Utah -- With Bonnie Blair standing on the top row of the bleachers, furiously shaking a cow bell, Chris Witty kept cranking out world-record splits.

Through 200 meters. Through 600. The question was whether Witty, who has spent the last month battling mononucleosis, could hold through 1,000.

"That last lap," Witty said, "was like a 10-minute lap."

It might have felt that way. But the 26-year-old from suburban Milwaukee crossed the finish line in 1 minutes, 13.83 seconds, breaking the women's 1,000 meters world record by nearly a quarter of a second, and, after watching three more pairs of skaters, including teammate Jennifer Rodriguez, circle the Utah Olympic Oval, moving halfway to her long-term goal: a gold medal in the Winter and Summer Games.

Only one American has ever achieved the Winter-Summer gold combo. Eddie Eagan won a boxing gold in 1920 and a bobsled gold in 1932. Witty already is only the ninth American to compete in both the Winter and Summer games. She placed fifth in the cycling time trial in Sydney.

And now she has one Winter gold.

It was the U.S. women's first gold in long-track speed skating since Blair retired in 1994. Rodriguez, a Miami native, won the bronze and became the first Cuban-American to win a medal in the Winter Games.

"Awesome," yelled Blair as the duo skated around the ice afterward. "That was awesome."

It had been a long time since the United States women had a night like this in the events they once dominated. And it was starting to look like the gold-medal drought might continue.

Four years ago, Witty narrowly missed winning the gold, finishing the 1,000-meter race 28/100ths of a second behind the Netherlands' Marianne Watson. But as these games neared, she was struggling to keep up with the competition.

"We thought it might have been the altitude," said Eric Heiden, former Olympian now working as a physician for the speedskating team.

Then a blood test revealed something else. Heiden and Tom Cushman, U.S. Speedskating's Western Regional coach, broke the news to Witty on Jan. 16 in a hotel room in Norway. The Olympics were one month away and she had mono.

"I was relieved," she said, "because I knew something was wrong."

As journalists from all over the world crowded around Heiden after the race last night, he tried to explain how she had done it.

"She's one of these people, as we say in America, who looks at the glass as half full," Heiden said.

The prescription for mono is simple. Rest. And with that in mind, Witty began routinely sleeping 10 hours a night and skipping or cutting workouts short.

"A lot of my workouts were a lot less than what other people were doing for warmups," she said.

Three nights earlier, after finishing 14th in the 500 meters, Witty was asked if she had a shot at winning the 1,000. After a long pause, she said, "I'll be a long shot. But I still have a chance. I think so. I mean, it's hard to say. ... If I just nail my opener, skate a technically good race and skate with my rhythm."

She did nail her opener. She came through the 200-meter mark in 17.53 seconds _ behind 500-meter gold medalist Catriona Le May Doan _ then maintained the world record pace.

Then the only question was whether any of the final six _ including Germany's Sabine Voelker, the woman who had held the world record _ would top her time.

They didn't. So she circled the ice for a victory lap, an American flag draped over her shoulders, a familiar fan in the stands, screaming her lungs out and clanging a cowbell.

"What a race," she said. "That was awesome. ... They both did great."

Rodriguez breaks the American mold for speedskaters. She didn't grow up in Wisconsin, with a pond in a nearby park and a world-class skating facility down the road.

She grew up in a place where the ice comes in cubes. South Florida.

Her father immigrated to Miami from Cuba in the 1960s. His claim to fame _ at least before his daughter became an Olympian _ was designing the logo for the structure that used to be known as Joe Robbie Stadium.

She started rolling skating at age 4, when she was invited to a birthday party at a rink. But it wasn't until five years ago, at age 20, that she tried to make the transition from wheels to blades.

The biggest problem wasn't the skates. It was the weather.

"It was a very tough first two weeks," she said. "I hated everything about it. I hated that I couldn't skate. I hated the cold weather. I hated wearing sweatshirts and pants all the time."

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