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Canadian speedskater Jeremy Wotherspoon is still hoping for an Olympic breakout

By Tracee Hamilton
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; D07

RICHMOND, B.C. For an aspiring Olympic hero, timing is everything. Not the split-second timing provided by Omega, but timing nonetheless.

For some, it's the timing of birth. A gymnast can be too inexperienced for one Olympics and over the hill for the next. For others, it's peaking at the right moment -- or the wrong one. A male swimmer not named Michael Phelps who reached his peak in 2008 arrived in Beijing with virtually no chance at a gold medal, at least in eight events.

And then there are athletes such as Canadian speedskater Jeremy Wotherspoon, 33, whose timing, where the Olympics are concerned, is just somehow off. That was no less true Monday night, 12 years after his Olympic debut, when Wotherspoon failed to medal, finishing ninth in the 500 meters at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

Despite being at or near the top of his sport for much of his 13-year elite international career, Wotherspoon has consistently fallen short during the important Olympic years. His Olympic cache: one silver medal, won at age 21 in Nagano in 1998.

Since then, Wotherspoon has struggled mightily on one stage, and one stage only: the Olympics. He was favored to win the 500 in Salt Lake City in 2002, but he stumbled and fell at the start. Four years ago at the Turin Games, he finished a disappointing ninth in the 500 and 11th in the 1,000, and then took a season off from the sport, hunkering down on a remote Norwegian island near the Arctic Circle.

In between these failures are a slew of accomplishments: He's a four-time world sprint champion (1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003) and an eight-time world champion in the 500 meters (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2008). After his island getaway, he returned for the 2007-08 World Cup season, and in his first race back, he set a world record in the 500 that still stands.

A broken left arm ended his 2008-09 season, and he has raced in just two World Cup events this season -- and only one of those at the A level, in Salt Lake City in December. He was 20th. He made the Canadian team in December by winning the trials in the 500 and 1,000 despite a metal plate and seven screws in his arm. Vancouver -- home ice -- represents his last chance to change his Olympic luck: He'll retire after these Games.

The hard-luck career of Wotherspoon, who was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in Alberta, has of course touched his ever-empathetic countrymen, who seem to regard him with affection tinged with sympathy, if not outright pity.

"I wish for him the fairy-tale ending of his career," said Nathalie Lambert, the Canadian Olympic Committee chef de mission before Monday's race.

"All our hearts are out to him," said Chris Rudge, the chief executive of the Canadian Olympic Committee. "It would be nice to see him on the podium and hopefully [winning] gold."

The 500 meters include two rounds of competition, so that each skater starts once from the inside lane once and once from the outside. The average time of the two rounds determines the winner. In the first round, Wotherspoon skated in the 12th pair, with a break scheduled after 10 pairs to resurface the ice.

However, a malfunction by an ice-resurfacing machine resulted in delays totaling 69 minutes. Skaters remained beneath the oval floor, warming up and trying not to think about the delay. When competition resumed, Wotherspoon received the loudest ovation of the night, and his time of 35.11 seconds was good enough to put him in fifth entering the second round, but .23 of a second behind leader Mika Poutala of Finland. Realistically, his chances were over.

That didn't stop the crowd from going nuts when his name was announced in the second round. But the lack of competitive races leading up to the Games and, perhaps, age had finally caught up with him. His time was slower than his first round. As the crowd yelled, "We still love you!", Wotherspoon took what he had hoped would be a victory lap. It was time to begin his goodbyes.

"I felt kind of emotional after the race," Wotherspoon said. "It's my last Olympics. I tried to make the most of my final moment here."

South Korea's Tae Bum Mo won the gold, followed by Japan's Kelichiro Nagashima and Joji Kato. Poutala, the leader after the first round, fell to fifth. World Cup leader Lee Kang-seok South Korea finished fourth.

Americans had won the past two Olympic 500 medals -- Casey FitzRandolph (2002), whose Olympic record still stands, and Joey Cheek (2006) -- but the top U.S. contender, Tucker Fredricks, fourth in the overall World Cup standings and the current American record holder, could do no better than 12th. Shani Davis was 18th after the first round and pulled out to rest for the 1,000, his specialty.

For Davis and Fredricks and the rest, there are many races still to come. For Wotherspoon, time is running out. Sadly, his timing remains unchanged.

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