Speedskaters expect medal bonanza

Monday, December 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KEARNS, Utah (AP) _ With the advantage of skating on their home track, U.S. speedskaters appear certain to leave the Salt Lake City Olympics with more medals than they won at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Fred Benjamin, the president of U.S. Speedskating, said the Americans hope for an unprecedented medal haul at the Salt Lake Games.

``We could come home with 10 medals,'' he said after the U.S. Olympic trials ended Saturday evening. ``We feel on top of the world right now.''

Ten medals would be quite a feat, considering the Americans have never won more than eight speedskating medals in a single Olympics. That occurred in 1980, when Eric Heiden brought home five golds himself.

Four years ago in Nagano, the Americans were held to a mere two speedskating medals, both captured by Chris Witty, neither a gold.

Nineteen-year-old Apolo Anton Ohno, the defending World Cup short-track champion, could win more than two medals. He'll be one of the favorites in four events: the 500 meters, 1,000, 1,500 and relay.

``Apolo can medal in every race,'' Benjamin said.

The long-track team also is loaded with potential medal candidates, including Witty, Casey FitzRandolph, Jennifer Rodriguez, Derek Parra and Joey Cheek.

Rodriguez, a former inliner from Miami, gave up her spot in the 500 _ even though she holds the American record in that event _ for a chance to compete in the four longer races.

She followed the same routine in 1998, finishing just out of a medal in the 3,000 with a surprising fourth-place finish.

``There's probably six people who could medal, so I don't think there's going to be one person to take the flame,'' Rodriguez said.

She tried to downplay expectations for the long-track team, which will face stiff competition from the Canadians, Dutch, Japanese and Germans.

``I don't think there's anybody who's been totally consistent in getting a medal, like Bonnie (Blair) or Dan (Jansen),'' Rodriguez said. ``All of us have a shot, but we don't have a very secure shot. For anybody to medal is going to be a big deal, regardless of what color it is.''

Ohno has a chance to be the biggest speedskating star in Salt Lake, though the perilous world of short-track _ think Roller Derby on ice _ makes it impossible to call anyone a sure thing.

Even after winning seven of eight events at the trials, Ohno laughed incredulously when asked if it was feasible to sweep gold at the Olympics.

``It's possible, I guess,'' the teen-ager said. ``But I think the chances are pretty slim.''

Ohno will be joined on the short track team by close friend Shani Davis, the first black to make the Olympic speedskating team.

Davis, a 19-year-old Chicago native, sneaked into the last spot with a controversial victory in the final event of the trials.

Ohno finished third, and some wondered if he let up so Davis could win _ the only way he could earn enough points to make the team. Ohno and Davis both denied any wrongdoing.

Davis' victory was just the latest sign that a once-lilly white sport is becoming more diverse.

``Is he black?'' short-track coach Susan Ellis quipped. ``I guess I never thought about it one way or the other. To us, he's just Shani.''

Besides, Ohno's father is a Japanese-American, while Parra and Rodriguez are of Hispanic descent. All came to speedskating after starting out as inliners, broadening the horizons for a sport that used to be dominated by skaters from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Cheek, who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., is another former inliner with a chance to make it big on the ice. The 21-year-old skater had a breakout performance at the trials, breaking the American record in the 1,000 and barely missing marks in the 500 and 1,500.

Cheek and FitzRandolph give the American men two strong medal contenders in the sprint events.

``This kid (Cheek) is on his way up,'' national sprint coach Mike Crowe said. ``Basically, he's been progressing every time he steps on the ice. We've just been waiting for this. We knew it could happen at anytime.''