Exceptional

Timely support from family and friends helpedChad Hedrick, a.k.a. the Exception, get on track and win the first of what could be a fistful of gold medals
February 20, 2006

When Chad Hedrickwalked into Turin's Cabrera Tennis Club, which has been converted into the USOChospitality center for the Olympics, a voice called out from the hallway nearthe front door, "Chad, please, a quick picture." More requests followedas the speedskater inched his way toward the dining room last Saturday night:"Get your dad in the next one.... And your sister." Given the crowd of30 family members and friends who made the trip from Texas, there were enoughcombinations of Hedricks to keep the digital cameras buzzing.

In all, Chad posedfor 16 photos and received a dozen hugs while making his way to a plate ofpasta at his table. "I'm starving," he said, taking a seat. Not sofast. "Chad, there's a camera crew outside," a U.S. team rep said tohim. "We're not letting them in, but would you mind if...."

"Absolutely,sir," he said, grabbing his coat. "Gotta give 'em the lowdown."

About four hoursearlier Hedrick, 28, had won the first U.S. gold medal at the Turin Games instirring fashion, skating the 5,000 meters in 6:14.68, six seconds off theworld record but an impressive time given the slow Olympic ice. With threeindividual races (the 1,000, 1,500 and 10,000 meters) and the team pursuit tocome over the next 13 days, Hedrick had a shot at four more medals.

That would be afitting achievement for Hedrick, who grew from a boy scooting around his dad'sroller rink in their hometown of Spring, 20 miles north of Houston, to a worldchampion in-line skater, to an Olympic gold medalist on the oval three yearsafter he first put on long-track skates. "I was raised a winner,"Hedrick said earlier in the week. "I see myself on that top step [of thepodium] a few times. I'm going to enjoy every moment of the Olympics."

The day before hisgold medal effort, Hedrick lived up to the nickname given him by teammate DerekParra: the Exception. He eschewed the bromide that athletes competing on thefirst day of competition should skip the opening ceremonies to save their legsfrom stiffening in the cold. "I may never march in another one," hesays. "I was jumping and screaming, feeling the spirit. My competitors whostayed at the village were not skating off that high."

Hedrick cravessensory stimuli; he parties and sightsees when he travels, often blurring theline between prerace moderation and postrace revelry. This time, however, hespent 12 days in Italy taking it easy before his first race and found his mindwandering. "I started thinking about things you don't need to thinkabout," he said, "like if my skate was really sharpened. Lots of dumbstuff but some personal stuff too."

Last Saturday notonly marked Hedrick's Olympic debut but also the 13th anniversary of the deathof his grandmother Geraldine from brain cancer. When he woke up that day, histhoughts turned to the woman he called Nanny, who imbued him with his charm."Chaddy, boy," she would tell him, "you're such an outstandinggentleman." It made him feel so good, he would hold a door, tip his cap andthrow out a "Thank you, ma'am" just to hear her say it again. He wroteNANNY and the date of her death on the boot of his right skate and imaginedwhat she would say if she could see him now. Filled with emotion, Chad alsosent a text message to his father, Paul. "I love you guys," it read."It's showtime. If you need anything, call me."

By the time hearrived at the Oval Lingotto, Hedrick could barely sit still. In a two-hourspan he made four trips to the training room--to loosen his neck and lowerback, to massage his legs and stretch. When Bart Schouten, his Dutch-borncoach, approached him about an hour before the 5,000, Hedrick broke down."Chad, you've never been like this," Schouten said. "What isit?"

"Little bit ofeverything, I guess," Hedrick said. "Been skating since I was two. NowI'm here."

Had the coach erredin endorsing Hedrick's wish to soak in the lengthy opening ceremonies insteadof getting a full night's rest? Schouten summoned Keith Henschen, the team'ssports psychologist, who told Hedrick, "Go see your family in the standsand run off the tears."

Hedrick jogged upto section 102, which looks out over the finish line. There he found a sea ofred sweatshirts with the words CHAD HEDRICK and THE EXCEPTION setwithin a white silhouette of Texas. Chad didn't say much to Paul or to hismother, Wanda, or to his sister, Natalie, but their hugs soothed him before hewent back downstairs to review race strategy with Schouten.

The coach urgedcaution at the race's outset--the key wasn't so much the first 200 meters butrather the first interval (from the 200-meter mark to the 600 mark), which hewanted Hedrick to skate no faster than 29 seconds. If Hedrick could then churnthrough the remaining 11 laps in the mid-29s, nobody would touch him.

Hedrick was skatingin the 12th of 14 pairs, and when the starting gun went off, Schouten waswaiting anxiously at the far turn for the split time. It was 29.03, and thecoach pumped his fists. Then came 29.46, 29.26, 29.23.... With each passing lapHedrick extended his lead over those who had raced before him. With two laps togo, when coaches often yell out split times, Schouten hollered, "For Nanny!This one's for Nanny!" Hedrick finished nearly two seconds ahead of silvermedalist Sven Kramer of the Netherlands, who had raced in the 11th pairing.

In the stands theHedrick fans gathered around an exuberant Paul, whose barrel chest and blackcowboy hat belied his softhearted nature. A week earlier he had gottenteary-eyed during a Super Bowl party in Houston and tried to hide his emotionunder the bill of his Astros cap. "They started playing the nationalanthem," he recalls, "and I thought, Next time I hear that song, itcould be for Chad." Paul held up much better this time. When he wasintroduced to First Lady Laura Bush, who had watched from the stands, he toldher, "We're Bush people."

"Great,"she answered. "We're Chad Hedrick people."

Back at his hotelPaul was adjusting to life among the traveling troupe that was his son'sexpanding fan club. In the vicinity of Turin, friends and cousins were doublingup in tiny hotels and inns, and the room about an hour away where he, Wanda andNatalie were staying was a tad tight as well. So Paul volunteered to sleep onthe floor. "Don't suppose I'll sleep much this week anyway," he said."Family fun keeps you awake."

PHOTO Photograph by Damian StrohmeyerGOING STEADY Hedrick's coach mapped out a winning pace that called for evenly timed splits. TWO ILLUSTRATIONS PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOTHE BIG PICTURE After a victory lap, Cheek put his win in perspective.

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)