- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

This guy could be the next Eric Heiden?

Come on.

Isn’t he the one who celebrates big wins with a cold beer? Doesn’t he go around blabbing about all the world records he’s going to set? Hasn’t he been called everything from the “Paris Hilton of speedskating” to the “loudmouthed Texan?”

Yep, that’s the guy.

Chad Hedrick scoffs at speedskating’s maxims: eat right, avoid alcohol, go to bed early, stay humble, don’t say anything controversial.

No wonder one of Hedrick’s closest friends came up with the most appropriate moniker of all: The Exception.

“He’s one of those guys who can drink a beer and be fine the next day. He can stay out late and be fine the next day,” said Derek Parra, a gold and silver medalist at the Salt Lake City Olympics. “Every rule I’ve ever been taught about this sport, he’s the exception to it. But he wins.”

Win he does. Hedrick was perhaps the greatest inline skater in history, a 50-time world champion before he traded his wheels for blades in 2002. Within 18 months, he was the world all-around champion in his new sport. Now he’s heading off to his first Olympics with a chance to be one of the signature faces of the Turin Games.

Hedrick, 28, qualified in four individual races and will anchor the U.S. pursuit team, a new event that gives him a shot at the Holy Grail of Winter Olympic records: Heiden’s five gold medals in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y.

No matter what happens, count on Hedrick enjoying the ride.

“He doesn’t want to go through this whole thing and say, ‘Man, I didn’t have any fun,’” said his father, mentor and former coach, Paul Hedrick.

Indeed, Chad stands apart in a sport where everyone can seem a bit robotic, a personality as big as his native Texas. He charms fans with his warm twang and gleaming smile. He pushes himself to greater heights with his Ali-like prognosticating (minus the rhymes). He’s willing to put his emotions on display for all to see, both jubilation and disgust.

“I’m not this really boring guy who just speedskates and goes to bed early,” Hedrick said. “People can relate to me kind of like they relate to John Daly on the PGA Tour.”

That’s not to say Hedrick is hindered by personal demons or skates while puffing on a cigarette and lugging around a spare tire of a midsection. He’s one of the best-conditioned athletes in the world, and no one is more dedicated at the rink.

“If I do something well, I might celebrate by having a few drinks,” he said. “But I’m always the first one to practice the next day.”

Hedrick has been on wheels since he was 18 months old — no surprise, because his father was a skater in his younger days and wound up owning a roller rink in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas.

Right from the start, young Chad took to having skates on his feet. Even though he excelled in other sports, including baseball, hockey and soccer, the rink was his passion.

“The first 15 years of my life were just skating, skating, skating,” Hedrick recalled. “I’m surprised that I continue to love it like I do.”

Hedrick is hardly an imposing figure, coming up an inch shy of 6 feet and weighing 167 pounds. The tale of the tape has to be explored in a bit more detail to understand why this is a near-perfect frame for producing speed on the ice.

With his well-known disdain for the weight room, Hedrick is rather lean from the waist up. But the lower half of his body — wide hips, massive thighs, bulging calves — can generate tremendous power.

“He just floats on his skates,” Parra said. “It’s like God lifted him up when he was born and said, ‘You’re going to be a skater.’”

Hedrick won his first in-line world title at 17. He became the first inliner to break an hour in the 26-mile marathon. And, in his most lasting contribution, he changed the very way that people skate with his revolutionary “double-push” technique.

While most competitors would push off one leg at a time, Hedrick generated twice as much power by rolling from edge to edge on his blades, pushing with every stroke. What started as a novelty is now the norm in inline. “Doing the Chad,” they call it.

“Chad always had his own style,” Paul Hedrick said. “When he first went out to a clinic at the Olympic Training Center, they sent home a report card saying, ‘Bad technique. Skates fast.’ That’s kind of funny. Three or four years later, everybody was trying to copy it.”

Hedrick made his first foray into speedskating in 1997.

Top rivals like KC Boutiette and Parra had switched over, hoping to capture the one thing that wasn’t available to inliners: an Olympic medal. Hedrick headed off to Calgary to make his mark.

A short time later, he was back in Texas.

“None of the coaches in Calgary showed me any respect,” he said. “They weren’t welcoming inline skaters with open arms, so I blew it off.”

By 2002, Hedrick decided to give the ice another try. He moved to Utah to begin training with the national team.

The transition from wheels to blades wasn’t entirely smooth. Hedrick showed up for the first workout wearing a helmet, only to realize no one else had one on. He forgot to take off his blade guards when he stepped on the ice, falling down before he ever got going.

It took a while to grasp the rules, too. Everyone still jokes about the World Cup race which Hedrick switched lanes on the front straightaway — instead of the backstretch. He either weaved around the lane markers or jumped over the timing device at the finish line, depending on who’s telling the story (and, no, neither is allowed).

“It was all part of the learning process,” Hedrick says. “You can’t just go out there and, all of a sudden, you know everything.”

Hedrick was a quick study, however.

In 2004, he became the first American in 16 years to claim the world all-around championship. During the past year, he has set world records at four distances ranging from 1,500 to 10,000 meters. He’ll be one of the favorites in three Olympic races, with two other chances to take a medal.

Before the U.S. speedskating championships last month, Hedrick glanced at a sign hanging above the lobby of the Utah Olympic Oval, listing all six men’s world records.

“I’m going to have four of those,” he said. (For now, he’s got two).

His teammates, who tend to keep their goals to themselves, are amused by his tactics.

“The loudmouthed Texan,” joked soft-spoken Chris Witty, a gold medalist at the last Olympics. “I think it’s great.”

Along those lines, Hedrick was quick to point out that qualifying for five Olympic races gives him a shot at Heiden’s record. He’s not making any predictions, but …

“It’s going to be a very difficult feat. … There are people who specialize in each distance,” Hedrick said. “But just the chance to do it is incredible. The ice in Torino is going to be slow. It’s going to favor a middle-distance skater like myself. Anything is possible.”

Hedrick’s most difficult race will be the 1,000 — his shortest event. His starts are not up to par with skaters who specialize in the sprints, and he doesn’t have as much time to make up the gap.

The wild card is team pursuit. The Americans will be one of the favorites if they have Shani Davis, but he hasn’t decided whether to take part in the new event.

Heiden, a doctor who works with the U.S. speedskating program, will be in Turin to watch Hedrick make a run at history.

“I always thought it was possible,” Heiden said. “Now that they have the team pursuit, the possibility has increased. Chad is a great skater. It’s not like he’s some sort of flash-in-the-pan guy who got lucky. He’s been around. He was an accomplished inliner, and now he’s a very accomplished guy on ice. It would be a nice record to share with him.”

Even if Hedrick ties the mark, it must be noted that Heiden won gold in five individual races. Hedrick won’t be skating the 500, and he’ll have help from his teammates in the pursuit.

Then again, it’s a different Olympic world than the one Heiden conquered.

“I think it’s tougher now with the specialization,” Eric the Great said. “What Chad is doing is pretty remarkable.”

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