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    Sunday, January 4, 1998

    FitzRandolph struggles with new skates

     WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) -- A year ago, Casey FitzRandolph was the star of the U.S. men's speedskating team, dreaming of gold mdals and becoming the next Eric Heiden or Dan Jansen.
     Then, along came the clap skate -- and FitzRandolph found it difficult to keep up with those he used to blow away on the track.
     With a month to go before the Nagano Olympics, FitzRandolph is already comforting himself with knowledge that there's always 2002.
     "If it doesn't work out this year, then I've got four years to figure it out instead of four months," said FitzRandolph, who struggled just to make the American team in the 1,000 meters -- an event where he used to be one of the best in the world.
     "I was going to skate through Salt Lake City anyway. I'll be right about at my peak at 27. That's not an excuse. Physically, there's no reason I can't be there at Nagano. I still believe I've got a shot at doing that. But, yeah, it's going through my head that there is life after Nagano."
     FitzRandolph won 10 medals during the 1996-97 World Cup season and a bronze at the World Sprint Championships. He set an American record in the 1,000 meters and ranked second in that event in the overall World Cup standings.
     But when the clap skate phenomenon began to revolutionize the sport, FitzRandolph was slow to adapt.
     "I was playing around with some clap skates this summer a little bit," he recalled. "Then I went back and forth from claps to regular skates. The regular skates just felt so much better, I had a hard time letting them go. Finally, I sent my skates, my good ones, over the Netherlands. I got them back three or four weeks ago with the clap mechanism on it. That was kind of the final straw."
     The clap skate -- the first major technological innovation in speedskating in more than 100 years -- has a spring-loaded hinge under the front of the boot that allows competitors to raise their heel away from the blade. While the new skate allows a longer, stronger push, it also requires an entirely new technique -- one that requires pushing off the front rather than the back of the foot.
     "It's not something I had expected," said FitzRandolph, one of the most technically gifted skaters with the old style. "But then again, who had? What can you do about it? Sure, it's tough mentally."
     FitzRandolph failed to earn a spot on the U.S. 1,000 team during the first round of the Olympic trials a week ago, forcing him to compete again this weekend. He took more than a half-second off his time Sunday to pick up the fourth and final spot on the team.
     "There's a sense of relief," said FitzRandolph, who already had qualified in the 500 and 1,500, his two weaker events. "I didn't want to answer how I went from second in the world to not making the Olympic team."
     The coaching staff was stunned when FitzRandolph didn't qualify in the 1,000 on his first attempt.
     "It's got to be very, very frustrating for Casey," Nick Thometz, director of the American speedskating program, said Sunday. "You're looking at a guy who, based on last season, was really a medal contender in both the 500 and the 1,000. ... Today, he's trying to earn the fourth spot on the Olympic team in the 1,000 meters. No one would have guessed that."
     FitzRandolph has tinkered with his skates and noticed some progress in his 500 times. That gives him hope heading to Nagano.
     "If I win a medal in the 500 and get 20th in the 1,000, ask me if I care," he said, grinning at the possibility. "Sure, the 1,000 is a bummer and the 1,500 is a little bit of a struggle, but let's face it -- a medal is a medal. ... All of a sudden, there's a bright light at the end of the tunnel that wasn't there a few weeks ago."
     Naturally, though, FitzRandolph would have preferred for the changeover to the clap skate to be delayed until after the Olympics.
     "There's no question in my mind that I will get it ironed out eventually," he said. "It's just a matter of when."