Those names floated on the frosty breath of everyone in
Wisconsin in the 1980s, swam in the water that turned each
winter to ice: Heiden and Blair and Jansen. Chris Witty and
Casey FitzRandolph, born just four months and 75 miles apart,
weren't like the kids elsewhere who only heard of speed
skating's Olympic giants every four years. No, Witty grew up a
mile from Dan Jansen's home in the Milwaukee suburb of West
Allis, and FitzRandolph grew up skating on the same Madison
rinks on which Eric Heiden sharpened his blades. Witty and
FitzRandolph grew up knowing that Milwaukee and skating were
synonymous with greatness.
Those names floated back into the 2002 Winter Olympics last
week. There, on Sunday evening, was Bonnie Blair, now a member
of the U.S. speed skating board of directors, swinging a cowbell
in the stands of the Utah Olympic Oval and shouting "Way cool!"
when she realized that Witty had somehow shrugged off
mononucleosis and was on her way to winning a gold medal in the
1,000 meters in the world-record time of 1:13.83. There, five
days earlier, was Heiden, now the physician for the U.S.
speedskating team, congratulating FitzRandolph after he became
the first American since Heiden in 1980 to win the 500-meter
gold. There, too, was Jansen, the most self-effacing TV
commentator at the Games, prowling an Olympic hallway, and as
the 26-year-old Witty made her restrained victory lap and the
27-year-old FitzRandolph marveled over how "so not worthy" he
was to win, it was easy to take it in and see the sport as it
always had been.
Indeed, though seven Americans, the most ever, won medals in the
sport in the game's first nine days (with 18 overall medals
through Sunday, the U.S. eclipsed its Winter record of 13), U.S.
speed skating could've picked no one better than Witty as its
headliner. During her formative years as a skater, her father,
Walter, couldn't find a steady job for eight years after being
laid off at a tractor factory, and the family of six lived off
the salary of her mom, Diane, who worked in an insurance
company's claims department until she, too, was laid off.
Somehow Chris worked enough paper routes and odd jobs to pay for
her skating. She won the only two U.S. speed skating medals--a
silver and a bronze--in Nagano in 1998, but most of last year
Witty had been afflicted by a lethargy she couldn't explain and
hadn't won a race since last March. In the moments before coach
Tom Cushman told her last month her ailment had been diagnosed
as mononucleosis, Witty was certain he would tell her she was
going to die.
Relieved that her exhaustion was treatable but knowing she had
only weeks to train, Witty figured she had no hope of surpassing
her performance in Nagano. She thought she might grab one bronze
medal. Witty, though, gained strength over the last fortnight,
and after finishing 14th in the 500 last Thursday, she entered
her pairing with Canadian superstar Catriona LeMay Doan in
Sunday's 1,000 feeling even better. Twice before, Witty had
broken the world record racing against LeMay Doan. If she could
stay with the two-time 500-meter gold medalist through the first
half of the race, Witty figured, she'd have a shot at winning.
Instead, she blew LeMay Doan and everyone else off the ice.
February 25, 2002
"I couldn't believe it," Witty said. "It's the most shocking
result of my life. It's something you dream about as a kid: home
country, world-record time, the gold medal. That's how I dreamed
about it when I was nine."
However, as Witty knows, these Olympics mark what she calls "the
end of an era." She and FitzRandolph are the last of a
distinguished line, the generation of long-track skaters who
grew up before clapskates revolutionized the sport, the last
generation whose parents knew one another and frequented the
same frozen ponds and thought of Milwaukee as their Mecca.
Former in-line or roller skaters such as Mexican-American Derek
Parra, a shocking silver medalist in the men's 5,000, and
Cuban-American Jennifer Rodriguez, who took the bronze in the
women's 1,000 on Sunday, have made balmy climes like Southern
California and Miami as important to speed skating, and both the
success of the U.S. team's altitude training in Utah and the
astonishing speed of the Olympic oval--on which four world, and
countless personal and national, records were shattered last
week--have made Milwaukee's hegemony a thing of the past.
"Milwaukee will never be the center of speed skating in the
United States again," says Jeff FitzRandolph, Casey's dad and a
member of U.S. speed skating's board of directors. "There's just
not the same philosophy toward speed skating in Milwaukee that
there is in Salt Lake City now. They're not willing to put the
money into it; they don't have the resources. Everything will
move out here."
Says U.S. national coach Bart Schouten, "The national team will
have to be here. This is the place to be."
Despite their success in Salt Lake City--Kip Carpenter and Joey
Cheek also won surprise bronzes in the 500 and the 1,000 meters,
respectively--the long-track skaters spent each day of this
Olympics knowing that the public's attention was turning
elsewhere. Suddenly, with 19-year-old Apolo Ohno in position to
win perhaps four gold medals, short-track speed skating had
become what U.S. coach Susan Ellis called "the hottest ticket in
town." The short-track skaters easily sold out the Salt Lake Ice
Center, with crowds of 16,500 drawn by the prospect of high
speed, tight corners and bodies spinning out of control. If
speed skating is a family, long-track is the straight-arrow
brother, long respected by the community. Short-track, an
Olympic sport for only 10 years, is the unruly brother who comes
home tattooed and bloodied, and sleeps until noon. But he woke
up in Salt Lake City last week, and he was a star.
Never mind that inside the sport, the race-fixing charges that
had erupted at December's short-track Olympic trials in Salt Lake
City still lingered. Both Ohno and teammate Rusty Smith were
cleared by an independent arbitrator of accusations that they
conspired to fix the 1,000-meter finals to get Ohno's friend,
Shani Davis, on the Olympic squad, but that official finding did
nothing to shake the near-universal conviction among those in the
skating community who had seen the race that something suspicious
had happened. Yet the controversy only seemed to give short-track
more of a buzz, and a public that knows little about speed
skating and less about short-track came to Salt Lake City ready
to be wowed. "People already think these are Apolo's Olympics,"
Casey FitzRandolph said last Saturday.
Ohno came into last Saturday's 1,000-meter race looking to win
the first of those four gold medals, and he breezed around
rivals and through qualifying rounds with the certainty of a
champion. "He looks fabulous," Ellis said after the first round.
"He's sitting there with both hands on his back, a little grin
on his face, saying, I know where I'm at." Saturday night's
final was no different: Ohno yawned as he approached the
starting line, and for 8 3/4 of the nine laps around the
111-meter oval, he dictated the pace while zipping around
opponents at will. "The best race of my life," Ohno said after.
"I could feel the win."
Then in the final turn, only 20 meters from the finish line,
Ohno and archrival Li Jiajun of China tangled arms. Li, last
year's world champion in the 1,000, spun out of the race, but
just as Ohno seemed to recover his footing, he was sent
sprawling into the boards along with Canada's Mathieu Turcotte
by a slip-sliding, bespectacled, 16-year-old Korean named Ahn
Hyun-Soo. Forget roller derby: This looked like a four-car
pileup at Daytona. Ohno crawled his way across the finish line,
followed by Turcotte's frantically executed baseball slide. It
was too late: Amid loud booing Steven Bradbury, a 28-year-old
Australian competing in his fourth Olympics, who had been in
last place, so far behind that the crash hadn't affected him,
had swooped past with arms raised. "I just saw them all on the
ice," Bradbury said, "and I was like, 'Hang on. This can't be
right. I think I won!'"
The crowd couldn't believe it either. As he skated a victory lap,
Bradbury exchanged curses and vulgar sign language with a fan who
screamed that he didn't deserve the gold. Then again, no one knew
what he'd been through. The fact that he'd been handed instant
immortality as Australia's first Winter Olympic gold medalist was
the least remarkable thing about Bradbury. In fact, no one in the
sport better embodies the danger, unpredictability and lunacy of
short-track. While training in October 2000, Bradbury flew
headfirst into a barrier, breaking his neck. On his forehead,
somewhere between his gravity-defying dyed-blond hair and the
tiny barbell in his pierced eyebrow, Bradbury can trace the scars
of the halo-brace that was screwed into his skull. "It wrecked my
2000-01 season," he says.
For anyone feeling sorry about Ohno's wrecked gold sweep,
Bradbury has an answer. In 1994 he led the last lap of a
1,500-meter race at a World Cup event in Montreal when someone
tried to pass him. Three skaters went down, Bradbury
somersaulted in the air and, when he landed, impaled his leg on
a skate. He lost four of the six liters of blood in his body and
needed 111 stitches. "I was lucky to survive," Bradbury says.
Bradbury's survival skills had one final test last Saturday.
Knowing he couldn't outrace anyone, Bradbury had a simple
strategy for the quarterfinals, semis and finals: Stay back and
hope that chaos ensues. In his quarterfinal heat two racers
crashed and Bradbury advanced; in his semi Turcotte and Li
crashed, and the apparent winner, Japan's Satoru Terao, was
disqualified for impeding; Bradbury moved on to the final. "Those
were my tactics," Bradbury says, "and they worked like a charm."
When he took the medal stand, Ohno was the first to shake
In the crash Ohno suffered a cut on his inner left thigh that
required six stitches, but in a bizarre Olympic twist, he didn't
demand a rerace, file a protest or call for a duplicate gold
medal. Ohno was gracious, saying he was "really happy" for
Bradbury, and he uttered the universal mantra of everyone in the
sport: "That is short-track. This is the sport I live for."
Thus was revealed one of the sport's hidden virtues: There's no
heartbreak. A quest for four gold medals is nearly impossible
because the smallest factor--a dull skate blade, a patch of soft
ice, the whirling arm of a competitor--can send you flying. Even
when the slowest man wins, even when a gold medal dream goes up
the chimney, the only thing to do is shrug, say, "That's
short-track" and skate on.
The sport's older brother doesn't have that luxury. A long-track
skater's race is against the clock, and his failure is all his
own. FitzRandolph knows that: His best friend is Canada's Jeremy
Wotherspoon, the former world-record holder in the 500 and
1,000, and the man who came to Salt Lake City with every
expectation of winning at least one gold. In 1999, dissatisfied
with his training, FitzRandolph took the revolutionary step of
moving to Canada and working with its top skaters. Led by
Wotherspoon, the Canadians welcomed FitzRandolph like a brother,
gave his fiancee, Jennifer Bocher, a job, shared with him
everything they knew. Wotherspoon changed the way FitzRandolph
looked at himself, made him understand that excellence was about
pushing beyond one's limits, not beating the next guy. In July,
Wotherspoon will stand as a groomsman at FitzRandolph's wedding.
"It's so tough," FitzRandolph says, and his eyes fill with
tears. "It takes such a big person to do what he did for me."
What's so tough--no, heartbreaking--is that on the first day of
the 500-meter final, Wotherspoon took four steps off the
starting line, caught a blade and fell. Wotherspoon didn't
finish that race and wound up 13th in the 1,000, and
FitzRandolph is still unsure how to handle that. He tried once,
right after Wotherspoon fell. FitzRandolph found his friend in
the locker room, hunched over and silent on a bench.
FitzRandolph sat down, put his arm around Wotherspoon's
shoulders, croaked out one word, and then two men, neither of
whom had seen the other cry before, wept, side by side and
shaking, for a very long time. That's not just long-track.
Short-track speed skating had become what one U.S. coach called
"the hottest ticket in town."
"It's something you dream about," says Witty. "Home country,
world-record time, the gold medal."