Two go for the gold tonight in speedskating

Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- One slipped at the start. The other got knocked off balance near the finish.

Jennifer Rodriguez recovered and won the bronze in the women's 1,000 meters on the long track. Apolo Anton Ohno picked himself off the ice after the pileup and got the silver _ and six stitches in his left thigh _ in the men's 1,000 on the short track.

Wednesday night, the two American speedskaters will try again in their best distance _ the 1,500.

"A lot of the same girls will be in that race," said Rodriguez, a Miami native. "On any day, it could be a different three. I just hope my legs aren't too tired."

Ohno is hoping his left leg isn't too sore. He was leading the 1,000, heading into the final turn when the jostling started, producing a finish that made a pre-Games description by American skater Rusty Smith sound prophetic.

"It isn't roller derby," Smith said of short-track skating. "It's NASCAR."

Ohno's story has plenty of NASCAR staples. Speed, controversy and, now, a famous collision. He tested out the leg Monday in his first workout since the finish that Steven Bradbury, the Australian who skated from last to first in the finals, described as "freakish."

"I had pain," Ohno said in a statement released by the team." But I always have pain. That's part of the sport."

For the most part, both Rodriguez and Ohno remained upbeat after the 1,000, insisting they were thrilled to get their first Olympic medals. But both are hoping for even grander things tonight.

When Ohno arrived in Salt Lake City, there even was talk of four gold medals _ talk that he scoffed at.

"The possibility of a four, gold-medal sweep is ... almost impossible," he said. "It's short track. Anything can happen."

It already has. But Ohno still has the 1,500, 5,000 and 5,000 relay.

"There's definitely a little pressure on me," he said. "It's natural. I'm human. At the same time, I'm going to do my thing and just pretty much try to perform the best I can, regardless of what's happening around me."

Ohno's toughest competition in the 1,500 figures to come from Canada's Marc Gagnon, a four-time world champ looking for his first gold in four Olympic Games.

In the women's 1,500, Rodriguez will face an all-star cast led by a pair of Germans, Anni Friesinger and Claudia Pechstein, and the Netherland's Marianne Timmer.

No matter what happens, Rodriguez already has made history here. Four years ago in Nagano, she became the first Floridian to speed skate in the Winter Olympics. Now she is the first Cuban-American to win a medal in the Winter Games.

He father immigrated from Cuba in the 1960s. 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.

"Being Cuban, that's icing on the cake," she said. "It's even stranger being from Miami. It shows that the United States is all about diversity. We're the biggest melting pot in the world and we have athletes of all different nationalities."

A case in point: Ohno.

His father, Yuki, is a Japanese immigrant who owns a hair salon in Seattle. Ohno also started out skating inline. He switched to ice after seeing short-track skating on TV during the 1992 Olympics _ a decision that kept him out of trouble and on the road to 15 World Cup medals and, so far, one Olympic silver.

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