America's best speed skater has a pierced navel, a fondness for
playing grunge rock on her electric bass and a desire to own a
Harley-Davidson. "I almost bought a Heritage Softail this
summer," says 22-year-old Chris Witty. "It was cammed out, had
all new pipes, a custom paint job, everything." She sighs. But
the Olympics were on the horizon, so Witty passed on the Harley
after hearing about an Italian skater who'd had a career-ending
motorcycle accident. So how does Witty get around her town? She
grins. "I bought an '81 Porsche instead."

That's Witty--incorrigibly free-spirited and exceedingly
flexible. She enters the Winter Olympics as the world-record
holder and gold medal favorite at 1,000 meters, and as a
contender at 500. Yet she still drives U.S. speed skating
program director Nick Thometz to distraction with everything
from her indulgence in pizza and ice cream ("Nick says my body
is a temple") to her laid-back demeanor ("whatever, man" is a
pet phrase). Her realistic ambition of qualifying for the 2000
Summer Games in sprint cycling makes Thometz fret that his
skater could crash on a steeply banked cycling oval, but Witty
shrugs and says, "Aw, nine times out of 10 a cyclist just loses
a little skin on the track--and, O.K., maybe breaks a collarbone."

Whatever.

Growing up in West Allis, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, Witty
rode dirt bikes and skateboards with her three older brothers,
but her first speed skating race was a glimpse of what was to
come. Chris, then nine, won by such a big margin that she had
already reached her mom in the grandstand when the other kids
straggled in.

Today, Witty's talent prompts comparisons to Bonnie Blair,
America's last speed skating star. But the two are not much
alike. At 5'6" and 160 pounds, Witty is two inches taller than
Blair and outweighs her by 20 chiseled pounds. In contrast with
Blair's impeccable technique, Witty's skating style is pure
power. Both women are what U.S. coach Gerard Kemkers calls
"big-race skaters." It's unlikely, though, that Blair would ever
be found at the Black Dragon tattoo parlor, as Witty was last
year, getting Notre Dame's mascot needled into her hip.

Pressed for something, anything, that she and Blair have in
common, Witty offers an answer: They both like TV. "I remember
us fighting over the remote once in Europe," Witty says,
grinning again. "Bonnie wanted CNN. I like MTV." --Johnette
Howard

COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS COLE/DUOMO [Chris Witty in start position for speed skating race]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)