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Monday, February 25, 2002
Speedskaters take home 11 medals

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY -- OK, so the ending could have been better. Even so, Apolo Anton Ohno had no complaints.

Ditto for the rest of the U.S. speedskating team, which had an Olympics to remember in Salt Lake City.

Derek Parra
Derek Parra embodied the Olympic spirit and won silver and gold in Salt Lake City.

The long-track team won eight medals at the Utah Olympic Oval, equaling the 1980 squad as the most prolific in U.S. history. This group was much more balanced than the one 22 years ago, which was dominated by Eric Heiden's five gold medals.

Derek Parra and Jennifer Rodriguez won two medals apiece, four other skaters accounted for one each. Throw in a bunch of top-10 finishes -- including a pair of fourths -- and this was clearly the deepest speedskating team in U.S. history.

"We all knew that we had a very strong team coming into the Olympics," Rodriguez said, "but I don't think that any of us expected it would be this strong."

Over at the Salt Lake Ice Center, Ohno and his soul patch created one of the most dynamic images of the game, prompting hundreds of seemingly normal people to stick fake hair on their chins.

Even though Ohno fell short of the four medals that some predicted, he still won a gold and a silver. Teammate Rusty Smith added a bronze, giving the speedskaters 11 medals in all.

That's one more than U.S. Speedskating president Fred Benjamin predicted before the games, a seemingly outrageous projection that turned out to be too conservative.

"I can't ask for more than two medals, that's for sure," Ohno said. "It was definitely the best experience of my life -- coming to the Olympics and performing so well."

The final night of short track was a letdown for the Americans. Ohno was disqualified in the 500 meters and the U.S. squad failed to pick up a medal in the 5,000 relay after Smith fell with 26 laps to go.

"You've got to be perfect," Ohno said, "and I wasn't perfect."

The home team also was shut out in the final two long-track events of the games, showing the Americans still have some work to do to catch up with the Netherlands and Germany in the distance events.

The Flying Dutchman, Jochem Uytdehaage, was the biggest individual star at the oval. He swept the 5,000 and 10,000 in world-record times, and also picked up a silver behind Parra in the 1,500.

"He's the king of these Olympics in speedskating," Parra said.

If Uytdehaage was king, then Germany's Claudia Pechstein was queen. She outskated countrywoman Anni Friesinger to claim two gold medals, giving Pechstein four golds and seven medals overall in her brilliant career.

"I made it once again," she said.

Overall, eight world records were set on the world's fastest ice, breaking the mark of seven at the 1988 Calgary Games.

Meanwhile, Ohno introduced an entire country to the wild and wacky world of short track.

In his first event, Ohno was leading going into the final lap, only to be taken out in a crash that sent four other skaters crashing into the boards. With a gash on his left thigh, Ohno managed to crawl to the line for silver in the 1,000.

Four days later, Ohno was involved in another disputed finish in the 1,500. He crossed the line behind South Korea's Kim Dong-sung but was declared the winner when the referee ruled that Kim used an illegal block to stay in front.

No wonder short track was one of the hottest tickets at the games, drawing more than 15,000 fans each night. They saw China's Yang Yang (A) win two gold medals and Canada's Marc Gagnon finally win the first individual gold of his long career.

"This is incredibly special for short track," Ohno said. "Most of these people have never even seen it. Hopefully, this will bring more attention to the sport."

Ohno, whose father is Japanese-American, was among those who brought diversity to the once lily white sport. Parra's heritage is Mexican. Rodriguez's father was born in Cuba. All were former inline skaters who switched sports for the chance at Olympic glory.

Parra is the ultimate example of the sport's expanding boundaries. He claimed an improbable silver in the 5,000, then came back to set a world record in the 1,500, joining Chris Witty and Casey FitzRandolph as American gold medalists at the oval.

"I hope children of any descent come out and challenge themselves," Parra said.

The 31-year-old Parra said he won't return for the 2006 Turin Games, but many of the U.S. stars could be around in four years. Witty, who'll be 30 when the next Winter Olympics rolls around, said there could be more speedskating in her future. FitzRandolph, who'll be 31, might be back, too.

Ohno, only 19, certainly will return.

The Americans trained extensively in Salt Lake City's high altitude, which seemed to give them an edge over their foreign rivals. The U.S. team also benefited from a home-country Olympics, which helped to bring in more sponsors and support.

"Basically, we trained for this Olympics exactly the way we wanted," coach Mike Crowe said.

Will that support continue for faraway Turin?

"We'll see," Crowe said. "We definitely have the talent."