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Flaim gets sidetracked, shifts to short-track LILLEHAMMER 94


HAMAR, Norway -- Don't mention fish to Eric Flaim at the Winter Olympics.

Two years ago in Albertville, France, Flaim was hoping to get a medal in 1,500-meter long-track speed skating. But the night before his race, he made one of the most unfortunate dining choices of his life.

On the menu was fish, fish loaf and ham.

He ate the fish. And he got a severe case of food poisoning.

"This time, I'm sticking with pasta," he said. "And I'll make the sauce."

Today, Flaim will reappear at the Winter Olympics, a reformed long-track skater gone short-track.

This is roller derby on ice, athletes dressed in Lycra and hard hats, skating in packs on a hockey rink outlined with rubber mats.

And the Americans have one of the top teams around, capable of claiming medals in all six events.

There is Flaim, back from the ovals, and Andy Gabel, maybe the best 500-meter sprinter never to win an Olympic medal -- now that Dan Jansen has a gold.

And there is a women's team led by Cathy Turner, who won an individual gold and team silver in 1992.

"You have to be tough," said Randy Bartz, an American sprinter from Roseville, Minn. "In this sport,when things don't go as planned, you don't cry about it. This would be a tough sport to bet on, because anything can happen."

Gabel is even more blunt.

"We're either going to do really, really well," he said. "Or we're going to be terrible. There is no in-between."

But the word around the short-track arena is this: Don't bet against Flaim.

In the 1,000, he is the toughest man at the rink, elbows high, legs low, whipping around turns, creating space and time with his legs.

"At first, not too many people took me seriously," said Flaim. "But they do now, because I progressed and got better."

Flaim, 26, spent the first 11 years of his skating career following the traditional long-track route, moving from his home in Pembroke, Mass., to Milwaukee to find the coaches, the facilities and the athletes to train with.

He got an Olympic silver in the 1,500 in 1988 in Calgary, Alberta. But after his disaster in Albertville, he decided to switch to short track.

"Five years ago, people had the idea that if you didn't make it in long track, you could just easily go to short track," he said. "But that's not true. This is a tough sport."

Just ask Gabel and Turner, short-track veterans who pass for what you would call the sport's stars.

Gabel, 29, is the most decorated short-track male skater in U.S. history. But he's still looking for his first Olympic medal after being disqualified from the 1,000-meter race in Albertville in 1992.

"It's frustrating," said Gabel, unbeaten this season in the 500. "It's one of those things that you could find a million ways to explain. I just want to come into the Olympics and skate my very best. That hasn't happened yet."

Turner, though, skated superbly at her only Olympics in Albertville.

The ex-lounge singer came back to the sport after a 10-year layoff and shocked the short-track world, winning a gold in the 500 and a silver in the 3,000 relay.

"That was a dream come true," she said. "Unexpected. Fun. The best."

Then, she hit the ice-show circuit, playing 100-plus dates a year with the Ice Capades.

"Things were going well," she said. "I was singing, skating. Everyone liked the act."

But when the show was sold, Turner was out of work.

So back to short track she came.

"The first few practices, I cried and cried. I forgot how tough it was," she said. "But I'm fine now. And I'm ready."

She had better be prepared for Norway. Turner may no longer be in an ice show, but her picture can be seen in Times Square in New York.

There she is, larger than life, 30 by 60 feet, skimming the ice, leaning forward, heading for gold.

"Nobody is a sure thing," Turner said. "You're skating against other people, and you have to skate four times to the final. Every time you go on the ice, there is a chance that something really bad is going to happen to you."

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