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    Monday, February 16, 1998

    Americans finally win first speedskating medal

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- OK, so it's only a bronze. The American speedskaters will gladly take it.
     It took seven races, but Chris Witty gave the United States a bronze Monday in the 1,500 -- the 47th speedskating medal in American history, more than any other sport.
     Until Witty's performance, the Americans were experiencing an M-Wave-sized drought in Nagano. Their best finish had come from Florida native Jennifer Rodriguez, a former inline skater who was a surprising fourth in the women's 3,000 meters.
     "We know we don't have too many medal contenders on this team -- yet," said Gerard Kemkers, the U.S. all-around coach.
     "Make sure that's a big, bold YET. This team is going to grow. This team is young."
     Though it's been 14 years since the Americans were shut out of the speedskating medals, the slow start in Nagano wasn't totally unexpected. After all, there was no Bonnie Blair or Dan Jansen to build hopes around. But the folks back home couldn't care less about the circumstances.
     Speedskating, which attracts minuscule attention in America except for two weeks every four years, is one of those sports that must produce Olympic medals or face the consequences. So when dozens of reporters crowded around Casey FitzRandolph and KC Boutiette after the men's 1,000 Sunday, they hurled question after question with one basic theme:
     What's wrong with you guys?
     "I'm doing the best can and that's all we can ask as Americans," said Boutiette, the platinum blonde with the pierced tongue who hasn't placed higher than fifth at Nagano. "For the amount of skaters we have in the U.S., I think we're going pretty damn well."
     Most of the top American skaters are 23 and under. The party line goes something like this: These Olympics are merely a chance to experience the limelight and get used to the intense pressure, then build on those lessons over the next four years. When the winter world comes to Salt Lake City in 2002, the United States expects to win plenty of medals.
     "This is almost like a prep program for us before we get to Salt Lake," Boutiette said, looking ahead to what it might be like to skate with the home-country advantage.
     "They're going to be yelling, 'U.S.A! U.S.A!' That kind of stuff gets you going. I think I need that kind of pressure to come down on me before I perform well."
     But this is still 1998, which means the Americans have to answer for their current predicament. They have plenty of excuses, mostly centering on the clap skate.
     "I don't want the public back in America to think we failed as a team, because we didn't," said FitzRandolph, whose best finish in three Olympic races is sixth. "We just kind of got caught with our hands tied."
     FitzRandolph, one of the world's top sprinters in the pre-clap-skate era, plunged in the World Cup rankings this season with that clicking noise beneath his feet. Other Americans, including Boutiette and Kirstin Holum, also have complained about having to make the adjustment in an Olympic year. Witty was one of the few who seemed to have little trouble.
     The rest of the world snickers at the Americans, accusing them of being whiners who failed to adapt in a rapidly changing world.
     "I'm not asking for sympathy," FitzRandolph said. "I just want people to see the big picture. To finish fourth, fifth or sixth isn't a failure, especially under these circumstances."
     Kemkers notes that the United States had at least one top-10 skater in six of the first seven races, including three events where two skaters cracked single digits on the standings sheet. Compare that with 1994, he said, when the best finish outside of Blair and Jansen was David Cruikshank's 19th in the 500.
     "Everybody in America has to realize that we need a few years to build," Kemkers said. "We can't be even a little bit disappointed with how this has shaken out with all the people we have in contention."
     Still, FitzRandolph and his teammates can't help but be a little troubled when those skaters from other countries keep stepping onto the podium, watching proudly while their flags are hoisted to the roof at M-Wave.
     "What else can you do in a foreign country with no English TV or newspaper?" FitzRandolph said. "We hash over it every day. We're trying to come up with some answers."
     Witty finally provided a reason to celebrate.