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Malone beats odds to reach Vancouver

DENTON, Texas -- The Unicorn Lake neighborhood in a football-focused college town didn't have a flashy sports bar when Jordan Malone, his roller skates stirring up a fine dust, followed his mother's moped on the subdivision's streets some dozen years ago.

He was 12, fighting dyslexia and asthma, on the day his mom, Peggy Aitken, bumped the moped into a curb and fell off. They'd decided that she would follow him while he skated on that day, trying to increase his times. She'd hurt her shoulder, but it wasn't that serious.

Malone's resolve was.

His coaches, teammates and family said that nobody defines "serious" quite like Malone, who won a spot on the five-man U.S. Olympic Short-Track Speedskating Team for the Vancouver Winter Games that open on Feb. 12.

When Malone qualified for the team in September, most of his hometown was concentrating on football. University of North Texas coach Todd Dodge conducted his weekly radio show from the 2-year-old PourHouse Sports Grill, just blocks from where Malone learned to skate.

But on a misty January night, the lively bar showed taped short-track speedskating as more than 100 people gathered in support of Denton's Olympian.

"It's unique to have a hometown boy in the Winter Olympics," bar owner Rick Moore said. "We're in uncharted waters, or, I should say, on uncharted ice."

Prominent in the crowd was Malone's grandmother, Mimi Aitken, congenial, excited and wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with "Jordan Malone, USA."

"I had it made in preparation four years ago," she said. "It's a storybook tale. Mind you, he wasn't born an athlete. He worked dreadfully hard every step of the way. He just knew he'd have to work harder and longer. He never looked for a handout."

Dream delayed

Malone's 2006 Olympic dream ended at the trials, where he skated valiantly on a broken ankle -- just one in a series of injuries that he took in stride during a roller sports career that took him around the world and to the sport's summit. The former world inline champion switched to ice in 2004. The next year, he won a world bronze medal as a 5,000-meter relay member.

Many of his supporters said that they admired the wiry, eager kid whom they recalled from a now-defunct Denton roller rink. They vowed to attend Malone watch parties at the PourHouse during the Vancouver Olympics.

"This means the world to my son," said Peggy Aitken, who moved with her son from Colorado to Denton when Malone was 10 months old. "He broke his ankle a month before the 2006 Olympic trials, had surgery three weeks before the trials and still finished seventh."

Malone's Olympic debut will reward him for his endurance. He has had almost every injury known to athletes in the course of the 20 years since he first put on a pair of skates at age 5.

He will skate in the 500 and 1,500 meters and the 5,000-meter relay in Vancouver. Those closest to Malone, 25, said that he defies the notion that Texans who grow up far from frozen ponds can't cut it in the Winter Olympics.

"I've never seen any of the Olympic sports live except for hockey," Malone said by phone from training in Salt Lake City. "I'm getting more excited about Vancouver every day. But at the same time, we're going through our normal routine. I think that when we're on the plane on the way to Vancouver is when I'll say, 'Holy crap, this is awesome.'"

Longtime Denton businessman Frenchy Rheault, a Dallas Cowboys season-ticket holder, might have been among the few at the PourHouse who has steeped himself in Winter Games lore. But for those who had forgotten, or never knew, that Herschel Walker made the U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team for the 1992 Albertville Games, Malone has become the man of the hour.

"Jordan will be going up against the world," Rheault said. "This is really special. I love the Olympics. I love short track."

Against all odds

Malone's Grandma Mimi, who lives in the Denton County town of Sanger, about 50 miles northwest of Dallas, said her grandson always has amazed her.

When Malone suffered a partial tear of the ACL in his left knee in October, his grandmother barely flinched, though the last thing his family wanted was to have an injury cost him an Olympic berth again.

I take it one lap at a time. When you have 27 laps, and seven to go, you just tell yourself that this is just one lap.

-- Olympic speedskater Jordan Malone

"Mind you, he had a lot going against him," she said. "As a child, he was undersized. He had ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], dyslexia and asthma. He overcame it all. He'd say, 'There's nothing wrong with me, Grandma.'"

The knee injury might have presented Malone, 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, with a brutal flashback to the broken ankle that thwarted his 2006 bid. Instead, he got to work strengthening his hamstrings and doing everything possible to compensate for the sketchy ligament.

"His knee doesn't seem to be a factor," U.S. short-track assistant coach Larry Daignault said. "He looks stronger than ever. He's amazing."

Malone said that he expects no trouble with his knee.

"Our sport isn't hockey," he said. "It isn't soccer. I take it one lap at a time. When you have 27 laps, and seven to go, you just tell yourself that this is just one lap."

He brings a spark to the team, said Malone's Olympic teammate J.R. Celski of Federal Way, Wash.

"Jordan is probably the most full-of-life person I've ever met," said Celski, who will room with Malone in Vancouver. "There's not a day that he doesn't make you laugh. Texas is not known for brewing Winter Olympic athletes. It's pretty cool."

Malone said that some of inline racing's tactics apply to short track. He said the U.S. team, which includes five-time Olympic medalist Apolo Anton Ohno, wanted to train at the Vancouver Olympic venue.

"They wanted $25,000 an hour," Malone said. "They didn't want us to do anything on it."

But an ice surface no longer is foreign to Malone. His route home to Denton last year, when he got to spend April near the streets where his career began, went through Bulgaria, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands.

"I always love getting home," he said. "I get to be lazy. When I'm away, I miss my barber and eating at Master Grill and Golden Fried Chicken. I can't find anything to match it."

Cathy Harasta is a Dallas-based writer who covered the last six Winter Olympics.