Driscoll endures agonizing wait to get to Salt Lake


SALT LAKE CITY -- You can reach Salt Lake many different ways. You can drive in on one of the major interstates. You can fly into the airport from many cities. Or you can even be like the early Mormon settlers and come across the country's midsection with a handcart.

And then there was speedskater Annie Driscoll's path. It included an agonizing detour through purgatory.

Describing the process is a bit like explaining how NFL's salary cap works, but the essential fact is Driscoll didn't skate well enough this season to qualify for the Olympics outright. Instead, she went on a waiting list in mid-January for a spot to open up. That meant the 23-year-old agonized for several weeks over whether she was about to fulfill a lifelong dream or spend the Olympics locked in a closet with the lights off, the doorbell disconnected and the phone line cut, lest she be reminded of what she was missing.

Sure, there is probably more stress involved in being on the waiting list for a kidney or a liver, but still, it had to be an awful wait in limbo. You train for years toward a Olympic goal and then when you are so close you can practically smell Bud Greenspan's aftershave, you're told, "Well, maybe. Just sit over there with the People magazines and we'll see whether we can squeeze you in."

"Early on I was fourth on the reserve list, which seemed pretty far down," Driscoll said. "I heard rumors that so-and-so wasn't going to race and that so-and-so wasn't going to race and that I was moving up, but it was just rumor and I really didn't know."

She continued training as if she would make the Olympics but the days passed by, the opening ceremonies neared and she still didn't know whether she would be marching in with the other athletes or fleeing Salt Lake so she wouldn't have to endure an Olympic celebration that wouldn't include her.

"I don't know what I would have done," she said. "I might have gone to Hawaii to get away from everything."

Rarely has a trip to Hawaii been described with so little enthusiasm.

The issue still wasn't settled about a week and a half ago just before the U.S. team held a luncheon and Olympic uniform fitting. The day before, U.S. coach Tom Cushman told Driscoll not to come to the luncheon, that only athletes who definitely were on the team were invited and that the Olympic situation did not look good for her.

The news was hard to take, but Driscoll did her best to not let on when she was with her boyfriend and fellow skater Nick Pearson. She was quiet, though, and Pearson kept asking her what was wrong.

"Finally he said, 'Why don't you call your coach and see whether you're on the team?' " Driscoll recalled. "I said, 'I did get the call, and I'm not on the team!' "

That did it. The dam had burst.

"I spent the whole night bawling," she said. "I didn't even want to go to practice the next day because I would have felt like such an outsider. Everybody else was going to the Olympics, my boyfriend, my friends, and I wasn't. My eyes were still red from crying when I got to practice."

It was an awkward position for Pearson. He already was on the team and about to realize his Olympic goal while his girlfriend of five years was irrigating the Salt Lake valley with her tears.

Sorry about the disappointing news, sweetie. But have you seen my official U.S. Olympic team ski parka?

"I didn't know what to say," Pearson said. "It's hard to console someone when you don't know what it feels like to be in their position."

Men are so helpful.

Actually, Driscoll said Pearson was very understanding. But it didn't matter much. Between the phone call and the practice, the U.S. team learned that Driscoll had moved up two spots on the waiting list and that there was a 50-50 chance she could be allowed to skate. So they put her on the team.

"I went from being the lowest I could possibly be to being on top of the world and still not believing it," she said.

Of course, Driscoll still didn't know whether she could race. She didn't find that out until a couple days ago when two more skaters dropped out.

She showed up Sunday morning for the women's 3,000 and edged up to the line in the third pairings. The starter buzzer sounded, she began to skate and four minutes, 15.61 seconds later, she had the best time of the early competition.

After all the years of training, after all the weeks of waiting, she was an Olympian with her name atop the leaderboard. If ever so briefly.

"It may have been for about only 30 seconds," Driscoll said, "but it was so cool."

Actually, her lead lasted just less than 10 minutes. By the end of the race, she had slipped to 21st, about 18 seconds off the winning pace.

But that's the funny thing about time. Some weeks can seem to last for decades. And some precious minutes can last for a lifetime.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.