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Saturday, February 16, 2002
Cheek earns fourth American speedskating medal

Associated Press

KEARNS, Utah -- Always a contender, never a winner. Gerard van Velde believed he was destined for Olympic heartbreak.

The Dutchman, renowned for his fourth-place showings, won Olympic speedskating gold in the 1,000 meters Saturday, breaking the world record just four years after giving up the sport to sell cars.

"That I could do it here is so incredibly beautiful, it's a crown on my career," van Velde said. "It's terrific that it turned out this way. Amazing."

The Americans picked up their fourth medal in five events at the Utah Olympic Oval -- doubling their total from the Nagano Games -- when Joey Cheek earned the bronze behind the 1-2 Dutch finish of van Velde and Jan Bos.

In a sign of the improving U.S. depth, Kip Carpenter took fourth, Nick Pearson was sixth and 500 gold medalist Casey FitzRandolph was seventh.

"I can't believe I just won a medal at the Olympics," said Cheek, a 22-year-old former inline skater from Greensboro, N.C. "I gave it my best shot when I was out there. I kept telling myself, `Don't give up, don't quit.' "

Van Velde skated in 1 minute, 7.18 seconds, slapping his left hand to his head in disbelief as he crossed the line. He bettered the previous record of 1:07.72 set by Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada last year at the Utah Olympic Oval.

Bos earned silver in 1:07.53. Cheek (1:07.61) also bettered the old world record.

Wotherspoon, reigning world champion in both the 500 and 1,000, stamped himself as a major Olympic disappointment by placing 13th. He fell just four strides into the 500.

Van Velde knew a little something about Olympic disappointment, too. He was fourth in the 1,000 -- missing a medal by 0.01 seconds -- and fifth in the 500 at the 1992 Albertville Games.

"It's really bad motivation to be this close, and no medal," he said, holding up two fingers an inch apart. "Some people said, `Hey, fourth. That's good.' But I'm 30 years old and this is my last chance."

After the 500 Tuesday, when van Velde missed a medal by 0.02 seconds, he tossed his glasses in disgust.

"Apparently I'm not allowed to end on the podium," he said. "In Albertville it was one-hundredth, now two."

Van Velde quit speedskating in 1998, when he had trouble adjusting to the clapskates that revolutionized the sport. He fell several times in major events, and even his trainer gave up on him. He took a job selling cars and got into marathon skating.

In 2000, other skaters persuaded van Velde to try clapskates again.

Van Velde's world record was the third in five events at the oval. He gave the Dutch their second speedskating gold and third medal of these games.

Carpenter, bronze medalist in the 500, was .28 out of another medal in 1:07.89.

"Fourth is tough, but I'm happy that an American is on the podium ahead of me," Carpenter said.

FitzRandolph was ahead of world-record pace after 600 meters, but touched his left hand to the ice coming out of the fourth turn.

"I was shocked when I came across the line and saw how slow my time was. I just died," he said.

FitzRandolph came into the race thinking he could medal again but wasn't upset at his result.

"I got a gold in my home country, nothing can match that," he said. "I went out there today to have fun, give it a whirl and go for it."

Cheek won three events at the U.S. trials in December but struggled at a couple of international meets in January.

"Going into this event has been the hardest three weeks of my life. I had so many doubts because I had not had a good race since the trials," he said. "But I told myself not to give up and not to let fear in."

Cheek was on world-record pace after 600 meters, but slowed slightly. He had to fret through two more pairings -- including Wotherspoon -- to see if his time would hold up for a medal.

Wotherspoon skated last with Dutchman Erben Wennemars.

"I thought those guys were going to smoke it," said Cheek, who was sixth in the 500. "Those guys were skating great all year long. I was thinking, `Wow, fifth place in the Olympics, not too bad.' Then they skated and had some slips."

"I had a pretty big slip and that threw me," Wotherspoon said. "Once you lose speed in a race like the 1,000 meters, you can't build it back up. I disappointed myself today."

Wotherspoon's dismal showing surprised FitzRandolph, his best friend and training partner.

"I know it's impossible to think he's going to walk away without a gold medal," FitzRandolph said. "On the other hand, these distances are so competitive, if you don't bring your `A' game, you're not going to win, no matter who you are."

Korea's Kim Chul-soo got things off to a fast start, breaking the Olympic record while skating in the first pairing. Kim's run of 1:09.79 bettered the 1998 mark of 1:10.64 set by Ids Postma of the Netherlands.

Postma, the defending Olympic champion, skated next and took the mark back with a time of 1:09.15. He finished 17th.

Kim's countryman, Choi Jae-bong, returned the record to Korea, going 1:08.81 in the 15th pair before van Velde skated next and set the world record.

Norway's Adne Sondral, defending Olympic 1,500 champion, managed to skate despite injuries to both shoulders. He finished 11th.