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    Wednesday, February 11, 1998

    Florida skater brings sunny disposition to Nagano

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- It was another icy night in Nagano, the kind that makes Jennifer Rodriguez long for those sultry winters back in Miami.
     "Florida is beautiful in the wintertime," she said. "That's why you live in Miami, for the winters"
     But, as Rodriguez buttoned up her bulky coat and pulled a stocking cap tightly around her head, she knew there was no place she would rather be: a speedskater from south Florida at the Winter Olympics.
     "Last night, I was crying. This morning, I was crying," Rodriguez said Wednesday. "Just being here, racing at the Olympics, that's something I've always wanted to do. All the emotion just let loose in me and I had the race of my life."
     As if to prove she's not just a novelty, like those bobsled teams from Monaco and the Virgin Islands, Rodriguez was right on the fringe of medal contention in the first women's speedskating event of the Olympics, the 3,000 meters.
     While the powerful Germans swept the top three places, led by three-time gold medalist Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, fourth went to Rodriguez, a former in-line champion who moved to frigid Wisconsin two years ago and quickly proved she could skate just as well with blades under her feet as with wheels.
     "She was best of the rest," marveled Gerard Kemkers, the U.S. all-around coach. "Jennifer came out of nowhere. I'm not aware of anybody doing that."
     The 21-year-old broke her personal best in the 3,000 by more than four seconds and left two Olympic gold medalists, Emese Hunyady of Austria and Svetlana Bazhanova of Russia, in her wake.
     Not bad for a skater who figured Nagano was just a chance to begin working toward the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
     "I can't believe it," she kept repeating. "I never would have dreamed it. Not this year. Never in my wildest dreams."
     All four of the top skaters broke the Olympic record that had stood since the 1988 Calgary Games. Rodriguez was the first, and she managed to hang on to the mark for about 20 minutes because the M-Wave ice had to be resurfaced after her heat.
     "I didn't even know what the Olympic record was," said Rodriguez, whose time was 4 minutes, 11.64 seconds. "I just knew it was a huge personal best for me. When I was skating around and they said it was a new Olympic record, I was like, 'Oh my God.' I knew I wouldn't keep it, but at least I had it for a few minutes."
     Niemann-Stirnemann, atoning for a fall in the same event at Lillehammer four years earlier when she was an overwhelming favorite, won the gold in 4:07.29, just 0.16 off Claudia Pechstein's world record. Pechstein took silver, 4:08.47, and Anna Friesinger the bronze, 4:09.44.
     Rodriguez will race four events in Nagano but planned to be at the M-Wave on Thursday as a spectator. Her boyfriend, KC Boutiette, will compete in the 1,500.
     Boutiette was the one who convinced Rodriguez to take up speedskating in 1996. He had followed the same route from in-line to ice, and he tormented his girlfriend mercilessly when she struggled to make it work those first couple of weeks.
     Suddenly, he was the one playing catch-up.
     "KC said I'm an inspiration to the team," Rodriguez related with a grin, "but he also said he's going to kick my butt. He said he's not going to let me beat him."
     It will be hard for anyone to capture the feeling that Rodriguez had Wednesday as she glided 7 1/2 laps around the glistening M-Wave ice, that feeling she belonged with these women from wintry locales like Germany and Austria and the Netherlands.
     No longer was she Jennifer Rodriguez, one of the rare Floridians to make the U.S. Winter Olympic team. Or Jennifer Rodriguez, believed to be the first Hispanic-American on the squad.
     She was simply Jennifer Rodriguez, the speedskater.
     "That'snot usually how I race," she conceded. "I'm usually the fader. I don't even know what happened or why. My legs just never gave out. They never had the extraordinary pain that I usually get. It must have been all that emotion I had.
     "Everything just let loose at that one time. I guess it sure let loose at the right time."