KEARNS, Utah (AP) - Eric Heiden, who knows a thing or two about winning medals, never expected the U.S. speedskating team to have this many.
The Americans won six medals in the first six events at Utah Olympic Oval. Throw in Apolo Anton Ohno's short-track silver and no other nation - not even the Netherlands, the birthplace of the sport - has more.
"This is much better than I thought," said Heiden, the five-time gold medalist from 1980 and now the team doctor. "I thought we might win four medals, tops."
Many people thought U.S. Speedskating president Fred Benjamin was being overly optimistic when he predicted the team could take up to 10 medals at the Salt Lake City Games, including short track. Now, it looks as if Benjamin was being conservative.
Chris Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez, who took gold and bronze in the 1,000, are contenders in Tuesday's 1,500. Derek Parra, who already won a surprising silver in the 5,000, could claim another medal in the men's 1,500, his better event.
Ohno needed six stitches in his left thigh after his last race but plans to compete in the remaining short-track events. Assuming the leg is OK, he'll be a medal contender in all three.
"Everybody was surprised when I made that prediction," Benjamin said Monday, an off day for both the long- and short-track skaters. "But our athletes are so well-trained, I thought we were in very good shape."
The Americans have never won more than eight speedskating medals at an Olympics. The high-water mark came at the 1980 Lake Placid Games - the last held on U.S. ice - but that showing was dominated by Heiden's five golds.
More typical are the results from Nagano four years ago, when Witty captured the only two medals.
This team doesn't have a dominating presence such as Heiden or Bonnie Blair, which is actually good news for the future. Amazingly, the seven speedskating medals have gone to seven different athletes: Witty, Rodriguez, Parra, Ohno, Casey FitzRandolph, Joey Cheek and Kip Carpenter.
"We've always had great skaters, but we've never had such a huge, deep talent pool as we do now," said Cheek, bronze medalist in the 1,000. "We're always pushing each other."
The Americans have clearly benefitted from greater emphasis on winter sports heading into the home-country Olympics. There's additional money to upgrade equipment, hire trainers and therapists, and provide housing in the Salt Lake City area.
Nearly all the top U.S. speedskaters live in neighboring Park City, which is about 7,000 feet above sea level, and train at the lower altitude of the Utah Olympic Oval, which still sits higher than any other enclosed rink in the world (4,675 feet).
Witty set a world record while winning the 1,000 Sunday, a race in which many top skaters faded on the final lap after setting world-record paces through the first 600.
"A lot of athletes didn't adequately prepare for the altitude," Heiden said. "They're really blowing up at the end."
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Also, the Americans are used to the world's fastest ice - especially the turns. Several foreign skaters have fallen or struggled to hold their form once they leave the straightaway.
"The Americans always train on this track," said Gerard van Velde, whose 1,000 gold is one of four speedskating medals won by the Dutch. "We came here not so familiar with the ice."
Then there's inline invasion.
Cheek of Greensboro, N.C., joined the wave of former inliners who switched sports for the chance at Olympic medals. Parra, Ohno and Rodriguez also started with wheels under their feet, making it possible for those in warm-weather cities such as Miami (Rodriguez's hometown) to winterize their athletic careers.
"Most people back home have no idea what I'm doing," said Cheek, who left North Carolina at 16 to take up the winter sport. "They say, 'Oh, you dance on ice?' I have to say, 'No, no, no.' " The inline-to-ice revolution allows the Americans to draw from a larger talent pool. Benjamin said there's a promising 11-year-old skater from Miami who wants to step into Rodriguez's clapskates some day.
"After these games, I hope there will be another influx of inliners who want to give it a try," Cheek said.
Speedskating has another big selling point: Ohno.
Already touted as one of America's best medal hopes heading into the games - he even got his sport on the cover of Sports Illustrated - Ohno's celebrity grew with his gutsy performance Saturday night.
The 19-year-old Seattle skater was heading for gold until a last-lap crash, but he managed to crawl to the finish line for a silver.
"He does capture the younger crowds," Benjamin said. "This is a sport that's not much different for the younger generations than flying down the hill on a snowboard. There's speed, risk, agility. It's a little more exciting than straight speedskating."
In a sign of growing interest, the governing body has received more than 5,000 hits in the past three weeks at its Web site, www.tryspeedskating.com. Benjamin said some 1,000 people have actually left their name and address, demonstrating a desire to take up the sport.
While speedskating participation is still a long way from that of football and basketball, this is a major step for the American program.
"Ice rinks are starting to learn this is a program they can sell like hockey and figure skating," Benjamin said. "With Apolo getting interest out there, we're hoping the sport will really have a chance to develop."
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