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Wednesday, February 20, 2002
 
Friesinger breaks world record to win 1,500

Associated Press


KEARNS, Utah -- The emotions poured out of Anni Friesinger as she climbed atop the medal podium. Now, she'll be known for more than her tattooed belly and racy photographs.

Anni Friesinger
Anni Friesinger, who hadn't lost a 1,500 World Cup race all season, finally got her gold.

The glamorous German finally won a gold medal in Olympic speedskating, breaking her own world record in the 1,500 meters Wednesday.

Sabine Voelker gave the Germans a 1-2 finish, but it was another good day for the home team. Jennifer Rodriguez claimed the bronze -- her second of the games -- and made this American team one for the record books.

"It's more exciting this time," said Rodriguez, who finished third in the 1,000 on Sunday. "Last time, I couldn't really enjoy it because I had another race in three days. I plan on enjoying this."

Rodriguez joined Derek Parra as a double-medalist for the American speedskaters, adding a second bronze to the one she captured in the 1,000.

The Americans have now won eight medals in eight long-track events, equaling the 1980 team as the most prolific in U.S. history. That squad was dominated by Eric Heiden's five gold medals.

"It is special, because we've had so many different athletes on the podium," said Rodriguez, one of six skaters who have medaled.

But the top step on the podium belonged to Friesinger, a free-spirited Bavarian who sports a Celtic flame tattoo above her bellybutton and has posed for erotic pictures in German magazines.

She was touted as a contender for three gold medals, but was gaining the reputation for choking in big races.

Friesinger finished fourth in the 3,000 -- a distance in which she was the overwhelming favorite -- and fifth in the 1,000. Her only medal was a bronze in the 3,000 at Nagano four years ago.

On Wednesday, Friesinger, who won every 1,500 race during the World Cup season, finally came through on the sport's biggest stage.

"I want to enjoy this day," she said. "Now all the pressure is done."

The relief was apparent as she took part in the medalists' ceremony with tears rolling down her cheeks. After receiving her flowers, she lingered on the top level after Voelker and Rodriguez had climbed down.

"I won all my 1,500 races, so for sure you hope not to lose this most important race of the year," she said. "I was trying not to change stuff."

Friesinger has always done things her own way. She riled up her teammates by criticizing their rigid training methods and accusing them of feigning illness to gain a competitive age. Claudia Pechstein, who won gold in the 3,000, shot back that Friesinger acted like a "kindergartner"

"I don't think about that," Friesinger said, brushing off the feud. "You're here now to skate for medals. Don't talk about it anymore."

Friesinger, whose mother skated for Poland in the 1976 Games, erupted in a huge smile when her time of 1 minutes, 54.02 seconds flashed on the scoreboard. She broke her own world record of 1:54.38, set a year ago at the Calgary Olympic Oval.

When the time held up through three more pairs, Friesinger broke down in tears and hugged her coach.

Voelker became the first skater to win three medals at the Utah Olympic Oval. She also won silver in the 1,000, to go along with a bronze in the 500.

Voelker finished in 1:54.97, while Rodriguez, skating in the final pair of the day, came across the line at 1:55.32.

American Chris Witty, gold medalist in the 1,000, was fifth.

Friesinger established the sixth world record in eight events at the Utah Olympic Oval.

Rodriguez, a former inline skater from Miami, rose quickly in speedskating after shifting to the ice just 18 months before the Nagano Games.

"I don't think it's totally sunk in yet," she said after her final race of these Olympics. "Four years ago, I would have never thought this was possible."

She hopes her success will inspire athletes from nontraditional skating areas. The inline-to-ice crossover has been particularly successful at these games, where Parra (San Bernardino, Calif.) has won gold and silver and Joey Cheek (Greensboro, N.C.) claimed a bronze.

"It would be great to open more rinks in the Southern states," Rodriguez said.

Witty, who won bronze in the 1,500 four years ago, briefly held the Olympic record before her time of 1:55.71 was bumped off. She was hindered by the lingering effects of mononucleosis, but managed to put up an impressive time considering she skated in the 10th pair, the last group to go before the ice was resurfaced.

"To say that I would've walked away with a world record, a gold medal and three personal bests is a little more than I expected," Witty said. "It just all came together."

U.S. coach Mike Crowe said Witty's illness probably kept her off the medals stand.

"She was feeling pretty decent today," he said. "But the 1,500 is kind of a barrier for her. She had a few doubts and was a little conservative. You can't be conservative on this ice."

Defending Olympic champion Marianne Timmer was on record pace halfway through the race but was exhausted at the end. She struggled across the line in 1:59.60, placing her 21st out of 33 skaters.

The other American finishers: Amy Sannes was eighth and Becky Sundstrom was 13th.