Witty's difficult season turns golden


KEARNS, Utah -- In Hamar, Norway, behind the closed doors of a small hotel room, Eric Heiden (ahem, that's Dr. Heiden) and U.S. coach Tom Cushman gave Chris Witty the news.

She had mono. It was Jan. 16, less than a month away from the Games.

But Witty felt relieved.

Despite this devastatingly bad piece of luck, she finally had an explanation for all her speedskating failures over the past few months. Coming off the strongest summer of training she'd ever had, Witty had zero World Cup podiums.

She found she couldn't recover after workouts. She couldn't set personal bests. Some days, she couldn't even get out of bed. After finishing fifth at the Sydney 500-meter time trials, the two-time Olympian was exhausted, frustrated and completely baffled. If this kept up, how would she ever live up to her double-medal performance in Nagano, where she got silver in the 1,000 and bronze in the 1,500?

Now armed with a tangible diagnosis, however, Chris slowed up on her training, feeling out her body to see how much abuse it could take. Sometimes, she'd arrive at the rink, only to last a few laps before having to unlace her skates and return home. But she squeezed in whatever ice time she could muster leading up to the Games.

Sunday night, paired with Catriona Le May Doan, the 500-meter gold medalist, Witty found herself getting nervous.

"Relax," she told herself. "Just focus on skating."

Le May Doan led for the majority of the race, just over two laps around the oval. Once Witty realized that Le May Doan was within reach, she kept chasing her, thinking to herself, "Just keep up with Catriona."

When Witty crossed the line, she saw the time: 1:13.83 and a "WR" right next to it.

"I don't know where that came from," Witty said later. "That was all heart. I was very happy to be paired with Catriona. I think two of the three fastest times I've ever had, I was paired with her."

Jennifer Rodriguez, Witty's friend and teammate, couldn't believe it. But Rodriguez had to snap out of her shock quickly because she was skating next. And finishing just out of the medals, as Rodriguez did in Nagano where she finished fourth in the 3,000, was not going to cut it. Not for the first Cuban-American to compete in the Winter Games. Not after uprooting herself from the warm embrace of her native Miami and planting herself in the wintry, vanilla culture of West Allis, Wis. Not when she had focused everything she had on this particular race.

Heading into the first turn, Rodriguez slipped, nearly falling. Her teammate and fiancé, KC Boutiette, saw the mistake and winced.

"The start is where you get all your speed," Rodriguez said later. "And I screwed it up."

Then Rodriguez turned her lapse into two incredible laps.

"My strategy even before I slipped was to sprint the first 600 meters," she said. "Those were the best two laps I've ever skated."

Although a "2" flashed next to her name, Rodriguez shook her head in complete disgust, unable to forgive herself for her near-spill. Gliding slowly around the inside practice track, she silently berated herself. How could she have prepared so much and still failed? How could a teammate who was still shaking off the vestiges of mono be the one to break the world record?

With only two pairings left, Rodriguez circled mournfully around the oval. After Sabine Voelker of Germany dropped Rodriguez to third place, only .13 second off Witty's time, Rodriguez kept her head down. When she heard Monique Enfeldt's 600-meter time, realizing it was so much faster than hers, Rodriguez wept, overwhelmed with anger and disappointment. Cushman hugged her as her tears washed the ice.

But then Enfeldt slowed her last 400 meters, a good .36 second behind Rodriguez. The bronze was hers. And now she cried tears, more out of relief than joy, thankful that her mistake hadn't cost her everything.

Later, Rodriguez still couldn't stop harping on her disastrous start. And as she answered questions while riding one of the three exercise bikes parked right next to the press conference stage, she seemed to simultaneously be punishing herself, while sending the message to Witty and Voelker, who'll be her rivals in the 1,500 as well, that she was ready to go again. Tonight, if need be.

"I'm just trying to get my legs to feel better," she tried to explain, betrayed by the sparks of self-directed fury in her eyes.

Meanwhile, a very dazed Witty ate it up. "West Allis, baby!" she yelled into the mike.

In Kearns, Utah, on the fluorescent white ice of a cavernous Olympic rink, the echoing cheers of her fellow Americans gave Witty the chills.

"You know, it wouldn't have mattered if I fell flat on my face," she said. "They would've loved me anyway."

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.