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Hedrick, U.S. quickly golden

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TURIN, Italy -- The adjective most often associated with U.S. speed skater Chad Hedrick is cocky. But yesterday afternoon, about two hours before his race at the Oval Lingotto, he was overwhelmed by the tension and began crying. He went into the stands and found his family and friends because, of all things, he needed a hug.

"I've never been in that situation before, crying before a race," Hedrick said. "I felt like a sissy."

Before the afternoon was over, he would know how it felt to be a gold medalist, the United States' first of these Winter Olympics.

Hedrick, a 28-year-old Texan whose goal is to join Eric Heiden as the only speed skater to win five gold medals in a single Olympics, couldn't have asked for a better start, winning the 5,000 meters by almost two seconds over the Netherlands' Sven Kramer.

Enrico Fabris gave the host country its first medal on the opening day of competition. His medal, a bronze, was the first ever won by an Italian speed skater, though it didn't come as a surprise because he was fourth at the distance at last year's world championships.

Hedrick, who finished in 6 minutes, 14.68 seconds, started tentatively, but had the best lap time of the 28 skaters at 1,400 meters and never relinquished the lead. He said he got extra strength "from up above" in the final laps, referring to his grandmother, who died 13 years ago yesterday.

As he was finishing, a crowd dominated by orange-clad fans from the Netherlands cheered him on. He has had a love-hate relationship with the Dutch, considered the world's most knowledgeable and passionate speed-skating followers.

On the one hand, they appreciate his talent. On the other, they don't know what to make of someone who took up the sport seriously only three years ago and is already dominating. Their silver medalist yesterday, the 20-year-old Kramer, began skating as soon as he could walk, his father having been a two-time Olympian in the sport.

Hedrick's story is remarkable. Considered a phenom in-line skater from the time he was a teen-ager, Hedrick was at a blackjack table in Las Vegas four years ago when he noticed on television that one of his former in-line rivals, Derek Parra, was having success as a speed skater at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Hedrick, who had previously done a little ice skating, decided that if Parra could become an Olympian, so could he.

"This wasn't my best day ever," Hedrick said, recalling the numerous world championship medals he won as an in-line skater. "But it is the most prestigious day I've ever had."

He said he used to feel let down when he would return home to Houston after successful in-line competitions to discover that no one even knew he had left, much less won anything.

"Now, when I say I'm an ice speed skater, they know what I do," he said.

Among the crowd yesterday were two prominent fellow Texans, Laura Bush and her daughter, Barbara, who were sitting next to Heiden, now, 26 years after his incredible performance at the Lake Placid Olympics, a doctor with the U.S. delegation.

Hedrick's father, wearing a black Stetson, met them after the competition and said, "We're Bush people."

"Well," the first lady said, "we're Chad Hedrick people."

Hedrick, in the bowels of the arena performing his media responsibilities, feigned exasperation.

"My dad's up there talking to Laura Bush and I'm talking to the press," he said. "What's wrong? I'm the one who worked hard."

His work here has just begun. He will skate Wednesday in the first two rounds of the team pursuit. Winning a gold in that event became more of a challenge when teammate Shani Davis, who finished seventh in the 5,000, said he would not participate in the relay so that he can concentrate on his best individual event, the 1,000.

"I'm not going to beg Shani to skate the pursuit with me," Hedrick said. "If he feels it's not right to do it because of his other events, that's his prerogative."

Hedrick has never been reluctant to talk about chasing Heiden's record. One recent headline referred to him as a "Loudmouthed Texan."

After winning yesterday, he said he would like to "downplay" the Heiden talk.

But only minutes before, he had said, "I didn't come here for one gold medal. You're going to see my face around."

For now, he has done all he can do and, with a reputation as "the Paris Hilton of figure skating," he said he planned to party last night.

"I've never been one to go home and go to bed at 10 o'clock when I do something well," he said.

randy.harvey@baltsun.com

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