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    Friday, December 26, 1997

    U.S. takes step to Nagano

     WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) -- Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen are gone from the U.S. speedskating team, but there are plenty of young skaters who want to prove that the team's gold medal hopes did not leave with them.
     Starting Saturday, in the first of two weekends of Olympic qualifying for the Long Track speedskating team, they will make their case.
     Chris Witty, one of the young hopefuls, talked about Blair.
     "I would hope nobody would ever forget her," she said. "She was the greatest our country ever had. I don't want to replace her. I do want people to recognize me ... to make a name for myself and be recognized for who I am and what I am trying to accomplish."
     Blair or Jansen have been on every U.S. Olympic team since 1984, the last time the U.S. failed to win a medal in speedskating.
     Witty won the 1996 U.S. sprint title, set a world record recently for 1,000 meters (1:15.43) and is the one of the team's top hopes for an Olympic medal. Along with KC Boutiette and Kirstin Holum, she is one of several skaters who have already qualified for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
     This year, for the first time, skaters had a chance to pre-qualify before the team trials, based on performance in World Cup and other competition.
     But the two weekends of qualifying at the Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis will give the nation a chance to see the team's prospects for Nagano. The U.S. team is allowed 10 men and 10 women skaters and the competition will be fierce.
     And skaters like Witty, who have qualified at one distance, will also be trying to make it for other races.
     The qualifying races will be Saturday through Monday this weekend and next weekend, with two races each day. The races range in length from 500 meters to 10,000 meters for men and 5,000 meters for women.
     Holum, at 17, may be more of a future star than a medal hope in this Olympics. The daughter of speedskater Dianne Holum, who won five medals including a gold in 1972, has already lowered her U.S. record in the 3,000 meters three times this season to 4:13.05.
     Boutiette is the Tacoma, Wash., inline skater who stunned the sports world by making the 1994 speedskating team after only a few months on ice skates. He says clap skates -- a recent innovation in speedskating technology -- have created a lot of uncertainty about who will win in Japan.
     "The Olympics are going to be really weird," said Boutiette, who has already qualified at 1,500 and 5,000 meters. "It's going to be interesting to see who wins every event. Nobody's been under the serious pressure (of an Olympics) with these skates on."
     Clap skates, unlike traditional skates, allow the heel to raise up from the blade. Last year, the clap skates began making a big difference in competition as they allowed skaters to go much faster.
     "All I can tell you is that when people do figure it out, their times really slide down by drastic measures," said Casey FitzRandlph, who took home a bronze in this year's 1997 World Sprint Championship.