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Sunday, February 17, 2002
 
Witty sets world mark; Rodriguez takes bronze

Associated Press


KEARNS, Utah -- Chris Witty was stunned when she looked up at the scoreboard and saw a world-record time.

Why wouldn't she be surprised? Witty never expected to go from mono to an Olympic gold medal.

Just a month after doctors told her she had the strength-sapping illness, Witty broke the world record in the 1,000 meters Sunday to earn an improbable gold, the third medal of her career.

Chris Witty
Chris Witty gave the U.S. its sixth speedskating medal in six events.

Another American, Jennifer Rodriguez, took the bronze.

"If I was healthy, that time would have been a surprise," said Witty, who covered the 2½ laps in 1 minute, 13.83 seconds. "I was shaking a little bit. I'm going to have to wake up tomorrow morning and pinch myself. I still can't believe it."

Witty figured she was a medal long shot after learning in early January that she had mononucleosis. She got the news at a hotel room in Norway, where she was preparing for the World Sprint Championships.

Team physician Eric Heiden and coach Tom Cushman delivered the diagnosis.

"I had that shaky feeling, like I wanted to cry, but I said, 'Don't. That's stupid,"' she said. "I know a lot of people counted me out. Some people said I shouldn't skate the Olympics. I was so determined to overcome this."

Witty eclipsed Sabine Voelker's record of 1:14.06, set in December on the same ice. Voelker of Germany took the silver, also bettering her former mark.

"I didn't feel a thing," Witty said. "It was an effortless race. It was one of those races where you don't really think of anything, you just float."

Witty skated flawlessly, holding her form together on the grueling final lap while many other top skaters faded. When her time flashed on the scoreboard, she threw up her arms and broke out in a huge smile.

"I don't know where that came from," Witty said. "Yesterday, I felt awesome. Today, I didn't feel so good. I was a little tired."

She was paired with two-time 500 champion Catriona Le May Doan, who won a 1,000 bronze in Nagano. This time, the Canadian was ninth.

Witty pulled away with a final lap of 28.90 seconds, which was beaten only by Rodriguez (28.61), who nearly fell on her opening turn.

"I thought if I could come out with a bronze, I'd be so incredibly happy," Witty said. "The gold medal was something I didn't imagine."

Voelker was second in 1:13.96, while Rodriguez finished in 1:14.24. Defending Olympic champion Marianne Timmer of the Netherlands was fourth, just 0.21 from a medal.

"I don't think anyone was expecting that race out of Witty, including her," Rodriguez said.

Witty felt sluggish throughout the World Cup season, the worst of her career. The mono forced her to cut back her pre-Salt Lake City training at a time when most skaters were gearing up their preparations.

"There's some days when she can't give much more than a regular warm-up," Heiden said.

Witty won the only two U.S. speedskating medals at the Nagano Games four years ago. At these games, the Americans have won six medals in six events at the Utah Olympic Oval, more than any other nation.

Voelker's silver was her second medal of the games and Germany's fifth.

Witty, who won silver in the 1,000 at Nagano, lopped more than a half-second off her previous best time on the world's fastest ice, where four records have been set during the games.

The 26-year-old Witty skated a victory lap with a U.S. flag draped around her shoulders. "Go C.Witty in S.L.City," said a sign held up by one of her supporters.

Rodriguez, a former inline skater from Miami, wobbled on the first turn but finished stronger than anyone, a testament to her distance training. She's skating four events in Salt Lake City, including the 5,000.

"The worst part of my race is the start," Rodriguez said. "I've been working so hard on it and what do you know? That's what I screwed up on. I slipped pretty bad and thought I was going to fall. Then I had two good laps, but I didn't think it was going to be good enough for a medal."

The influx of inliners is a major reason the American team has improved. It is on pace to break its previous mark of eight medals from the 1980 Lake Placid Games.

Rodriguez's fiance, KC Boutiette, coaxed her to switch to the ice just 18 months before the 1998 Nagano Games. She's the third ex-inliner to win a medal, joining 5,000 silver medalist Derek Parra and Joey Cheek, who took bronze in the men's 1,000 on Saturday.

One of Rodriguez's fans held up a sign, "Miami Ice. En Fuego."

Witty followed a more traditional path to the ice. A native of America's speedskating mecca, West Allis, Wis., she began skating in 1985.

At the last Olympics, Witty was the only American to win more than one medal, the silver in the 1,000 and a bronze in the 1,500.

Witty also is one of just nine Americans to compete in both the Winter and Summer Games. She finished fifth in a cycling race at Sydney two years ago.

"I would love to try to go to Athens," Witty said.

Twenty of the 31 skaters went faster than the old Olympic record, Timmer's 1:16.51 to win gold at Nagano.

Becky Sundstrom, who finished a surprising sixth in 1998, was 16th and the other American, Amy Sannes, was 14th.

After a strong 2000-01 season, Witty appeared poised for another run at the medals in Salt Lake City. Then, mysteriously, she didn't seem to have any energy when the new season began.

"I couldn't run a lap without getting tired," said Witty, who arrived at the Olympics without a World Cup medal.

She was relieved when doctors finally diagnosed the mono. But she had to rest for a full week, then cut back her training.

"Now, it's like a great mystery as to how I will do," she said beforehand.

Not anymore.