- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

KEARNS, Utah (AP) Who's that atop the medal standings at the Utah Olympic Oval?

No, it's not the Netherlands, the birthplace of speedskating.

Try the Americans, who have won six medals in six events and are on pace for their most successful speedskating venture in Winter Olympics history.

"It's been really motivational to watch our team," said Chris Witty, who set a world record while winning gold in the women's 1,000 meters Sunday. "We have a few more races, and I think we can still have success."

Many people thought U.S. Speedskating president Fred Benjamin was being overly optimistic when he predicted the team could take up to 10 medals at the Salt Lake City Games, including short track.

Now, it looks like Benjamin was being too conservative. Counting Apolo Anton Ohno's silver in the 1,000 short-track race, American speedskaters have seven medals overall and plenty of chances to add more.

Derek Parra, who already won a surprising silver in the 5,000, could claim another medal in the 1,500, his better event. Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez, who took gold and bronze in the 1,000, are contenders in today's 1,500.

Ohno needed six stitches in his left thigh after his last race but plans to compete in the remaining short-track events. Assuming the leg is OK, he'll be a medal contender in all three.

"Everybody was surprised when I made that prediction," Benjamin said yesterday, an off-day for both the long- and short-track skaters. "But our athletes are so well-trained, I thought we were in very good shape."

The Americans have never won more than eight speedskating medals at an Olympics. The high-water mark came at the 1980 Lake Placid Games the last held on U.S. ice but that showing was dominated by Eric Heiden's five gold medals.

More typical are the results from Nagano four years ago, when Witty captured the only two medals.

This team doesn't have a dominating presence like Heiden or Bonnie Blair, which is actually good news for the future. Amazingly, the seven speedskating medals have gone to seven different athletes: Witty, Rodriguez, Parra, Ohno, Casey FitzRandolph, Joey Cheek and Kip Carpenter.

"We've always had great skaters, but we've never had such a huge, deep talent pool as we do now," said Cheek, bronze medalist in the 1,000. "We're always pushing each other."

The Americans have clearly benefitted from greater emphasis on winter sports heading into the home-country Olympics. There's additional money to upgrade equipment, hire trainers and therapists and provide housing in the Salt Lake City area.

Nearly all the top U.S. speedskaters live in neighboring Park City, which is about 7,000 feet above sea level, and train at the lower altitude of the Utah Olympic Oval. That arrangement helps boost performance.

The home-ice advantage can't be underestimated either.

"The Americans always train on this track," said Gerard van Velde, whose 1,000 gold is one of four speedskating medals won by the Dutch. "We came here not so familiar with the ice."

The oval in suburban Kearns is considered the fastest in the world, largely because of the altitude (4,675 feet) and a low roof that makes it easier to control ice conditions. The Americans are more equipped with anyone to deal with the high speeds especially on the turns.

"You see people exploding on the turns because they're just not used to holding that speed," Cheek said.

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