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    Saturday, January 17, 1998

    Speedskater Witty looks to cycling

     WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) -- Chris Witty doesn't want to be the next Bonnie Blair. OK, then, how about the next Eddie Eagan?
     "Who's that?" Witty asked, a puzzled look on her face.
     She listens intently as a reporter tells her the story of Eagan, the only athlete to win gold medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
     "It was a long time ago, wasn't it?" Witty asked.
     Yes, it was. After winning the light heavyweight boxing championship at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Eagan joined the four-man bobsled team that captured gold for the Americans at the 1932 Lake Placid Games.
     Witty may not know who Eagan was, but she wouldn't mind duplicating his feat. Already, she's a medal contender in speedskating for the Nagano Games next month. And, after serving as an alternate for the 1996 U.S. cycling team in Atlanta, she would like to give that sport her full attention before the 2000 Sydney Games.
     "If I can do them both, why not?" she said nonchalantly.
     But first things first. Witty is expected to be the top American speedskating hope at Nagano, having won the 1996 world sprint championship, then setting a world record in the 1,000 meters two months ago after switching to the revolutionary clap skates.
     All that success inspires the inevitable comparisons with Blair, who won five golds and one bronze in her three Olympics.
     "I kind of wish people wouldn't always compare me to her," Witty said. "I've worked my whole life to achieve what I've achieved to this point, but I've always had to hear her name before mine. That's not really fair. This is my moment, not hers. She's retired."
     Besides, other han their mutual success on the ice, there's not much reason to link the two.
     Blair was never known for watching hours upon hours of MTV, satisfying her eclectic musical tastes with acts ranging from Prodigy to Bob Marley. Witty is.
     Blair didn't have a ring pierced in her navel, or a Notre Dame Fightin' Irishman tattooed on her hip. Witty does.
     The what-the-heck mentality that prompted Witty to pierce her navel and get a tattoo probably helps her skate faster once she's on the ice. Life should be fun. No need to get uptight over something like the Olympics.
     "I think I'm a pretty laid-back person," Witty said. "I know how to relax when it's time for a big race. It's easy to get wrapped up in the moment and say, 'Oh my gosh, these are the world championships, these are the Olympics' instead of thinking to yourself, 'Listen, my only job is to skate the best I can.'
     "The main thing is to let your skating and your adrenaline kick in without thinking about all those other things. When that happens, you're going to have a great time and you're going to go faster."
     While several members of the U.S. team have struggled to adjust to the clap skate, Witty has made the transition like she's been wearing the landmark piece of equipment all her life. From one season to the next, she sliced three seconds off her time in the 1,000.
     "I'd like to say that Chris is really that much better this year, but you can't attribute it all to fitness," said Nick Thometz, director of the U.S. speedskating program. "She's adapted well to the clap skate. She's also stronger than she has been in a while. When you put it all together, it makes for a pretty strong skater."
     Witty will compete in three events in Nagano: the 500, 1,000 and 1,500. Whether or not she returns from Japan with a gold medal, she intends to begin cutting back on her skating in 1999 so she can make a full-fledged run at a cycling medal in Sydney. Already, she's an accomplished cyclist, having won the 500-meter time trial and finishing second in the match sprints at the U.S. trials before the Atlanta Games.
     "I need experience," said Witty, whose powerful legs dominate her 5-foot-6, 150-pound body. "I don't know how to get around the track like those other girls. They know all the tricks. I'm just out there pedaling away, but don't really know what I'm doing."
     Cycling is a popular cross-training workout for speedskaters, and several have meshed the two sports competitively. The most prominent athlete to master both was Germany's Christa Rothenburger, who won a gold medal in speedskating at the 1988 Calgary Games, then added a silver in cycling just a few months later at Seoul.
     Blair also did some competitive cycling early in her speedskating career.
     "The most difficult thing is that, in a sense, you're competing year round," Blair said. "You don't really have any time off. That not only is difficult on your body, it's even more difficult on your mind. ... That's one of the things that drove me out of it."
     Unlike Rothenburger, Witty doesn't have to worry about competing in two Olympics in the same year now that the Winter and Summer Games are staggered in two-year intervals. But there's another issue to consider.
     "The cyclists who go the hardest are the cyclists who aren't afraid to fall," Blair said. "For me, I was scared to fall. I didn't want to be knocked out of the sport that was at the top of my heart. I didn't have that killer instinct on the bike that I did on skates."
     Witty insists that won't be a problem for her.
     "It's not like cyclists crash and then they die," she said with a shrug. "You just lose a little skin nine times out of 10. Or maybe you break a collarbone. It's not all that often that a cyclist gets hurt real bad on the track."
     So it's on to Sydney -- with a stop in Nagano along the way.