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On Clap Skates, FitzRandolph Makes Some Noise

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 1998; Page D5

NAGANO, Feb. 9—Casey FitzRandolph has no idea what happened at M-Wave, the speedskating venue here at the Winter Olympics, on this frosty afternoon. He raced in the first round of the menís 500 meters. He raced in the dreaded clap skates, which have made his life miserable for months. He expected to have a mediocre showing.

And he skated the best 500-meter race of his life. The 23-year-old American briefly held the Olympic record with his time of 35.81 seconds, and finished the first of two races in third place, the possibility of a medal suddenly a tantalizing thought.

"I donít know where that race came from," FitzRandolph said. "Iíll have to watch the race on tape to know what it looked like. But at least ítil tomorrow, Iím gonna believe."

FitzRandolph is trailing Japanís Hiroyasu Shimizu (the world record holder) and Canadaís Kevin Overland in the event, which concludes with a second race on Tuesday afternoon (2:30 a.m. Tuesday EST). Shimizu set the Olympic record with his time of 35.76 seconds on a day when two of the favorites faltered. Jan Bos of the Netherlands slipped three steps into his race and finished 20th, and Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada, who skated in the same pair as Bos, nearly fell near the finish and stood seventh. Bos and Wotherspoon were ranked 1-2 coming into the race.

Clap skates and rubberized, aerodynamic fabric strips have been hot topics in speedskating here, where the skates (which have a hinged blade) and the strips (applied to clothing) are believed to have contributed to the Netherlands teamís stunning world record setting performance in the menís 5,000 meters on Sunday.

FitzRandolph was not one of the guys talking excitedly about the innovations. Since clap skates—which are actually a century old—appeared on the speedskating scene, his promising career seemed to go straight south. Unable to adjust, his world ranking plummeted and he arrived in Nagano no longer wondering if he had a shot at a medal. Oh, no. He was wondering if he was about to embarrass himself.

"Six months ago, I would not have been happy to get third," said Fitz Randolph, who did not wear the strips on his racing suit. "I wanted to win. But coming from where Iíve come from this year, a bronze would be great."

The clap skate has had a dizzying effect on speedskating, and on Fitz Randolph in particular. While many skaters have made dramatic advances since using the skates, heíd not been able to adjust. The skates made him less successful at his strongest distance—the 1,000 meters, in which he also is entered here—and, oddly enough, today they made him stronger at the distance in which he never expected to medal.

"In a world without clap skates, I would be surprised if I would be sitting in third now," said FitzRandolph, who also will compete in the 1,500 meters. "And Iíd be surprised Iíd be sitting as low [in the world rankings] as I am in the 1,000."

FitzRandolphís inability to feel comfortable in the skates had made him almost morose in the weeks leading up to these Games, and his teammates—including David Cruikshank (who is tied for 21st place in the 500 after today)—have felt compelled to try to help him out of his funk. Cruikshank worked on FitzRandolphís skates in an attempt to help them better suit his buddy, but eventually turned them over to an expert who made all kinds of little adjustments prior to todayís race.

For the first time in the Olympics, 500-meter skaters will race on consecutive days, once in the inner lane and once in the outer lane, with the best combined time determining the winner.

With a 100-meter split tie of 9.77 (second only to Shimizu, who thrilled the home crowd), FitzRandolph held steady and soared across the finish line, then immediately looked up at the clock. When he read his time—which was, for the moment, an Olympic record—he threw up his arms in both jubilation and shock.

"Itís obvious I havenít been skating up to my potential," FitzRandolph said. "I havenít all year. I didnít expect to go 35.8 and be in third place, but I hoped inside it was a possibility."

Despite his disappointment in his own performance, Cruikshank—who was cheered on by his pregnant wife, Bonnie Blair, a fellow speedskater and well-decorated former Olympian—was thrilled by his teammateís success.

"I couldnít be happier for the guy," said Cruikshank, who is going to join his wife in retirement after these Olympics. "Heís gone through a lot this year."

None of that seemed to matter, though, when FitzRandolph was high-fiving his coaches and grinning from ear-to-ear this afternoon. Chewing on a granola bar and shaking his head in disbelief, he tried to explain the transformation, then finally gave up, shrugging his shoulders in happy confusion.

"This is what I was looking to do, but it wasnít what I was expecting," he said. "I wish I could tell you I figured out something with my skates this week, but I didnít. It just seemed to happen."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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