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NO HEIDEN FROM THIS GUY: HEDRICK HOPING TO HIT GOLD-MEDAL JACKPOT.

Byline: Paul Oberjuerge Staff Writer

TURIN, Italy - In February of 2002, Chad Hedrick was playing blackjack at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, sneaking peeks at a sports-book television tuned to the 1,500-meter speedskating race at the Salt Lake Olympics.

``I finally got away from the table to watch Derek (Parra) skate, and he ended up winning,'' Hedrick said Wednesday. ``And I went back to the table and started betting and didn't even know what money I was throwing out there.

``And my mind's just racing. Like, 'Man, I had a long history with Derek in inline skating. He was my main rival. We went at it for years.'

``And my mind's just racing. 'Maybe this is what I need to do.' At that point I was tired of inline skating. I needed somethin' new, and thinking 'Is this really what I should do?' And about four or five hundred dollars (in lost bets) later, yeah ... I knew there was something out there for me. I knew this was my calling.''

Four years later, the former inline-skating champion is in position to become the most decorated Olympian of the Turin Winter Games.

The speedskating newbie and self-described ``loudmouth Texan'' has a chance to match Eric Heiden's epic 1980 performance by winning five speedskating gold medals.

``I'm not going to sit here and guarantee five golds,'' Hedrick said. ``But I'm really confident in what I'm doing. Why shouldn't I be?''

Why, indeed.

Hedrick, 28, has mastered speed on ice with extraordinary alacrity.

He shifted to ice permanently only in the fall of 2003, and ``fell on my butt'' the first time he got on the track because he forgot to remove the blade covers from his skates.

But that awkward beginner now is the world-record holder in the 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. He also skates on what will be a strong U.S. pursuit team.

His fifth event here, the 1,000-meter race, is his weakest. But even there, Hedrick is among the world's elite.

``Five golds? It's gonna be tough,'' said Parra, now his U.S. teammate and training partner. ``Five medals? Difficult. Four medals? I don't think it will be that difficult for him.

``I skate with him every day. He's incredibly comfortable on this ice out here. He can fight. And he's an anaerobic monster. ... He could win four golds, yeah.''

Hedrick is so comfortable that he will march in the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night - even though his first race, the 5,000, is the next day.

Hedrick is so comfortable that he grates on many traditionalists. Particularly those from European speedskating hotbeds such as The Netherlands, who rue he doesn't know the sport's history. Who figure skating ought to be harder for him. Who suggest his world records are the result of specially groomed ice and are somehow bogus. Etc.

Hedrick suggests someone who breaks records - and the mold - is good for the sport.

``Not to have someone who grew up speedskating since they were 3 years old and uses the classical technique and does this and trains this way and has video tapes so he can study Eric Heiden ... it just puts a different spin on the sport,'' he said.

Almost everything is different about Hedrick. He is known to celebrate with a beer or two and make the occasional stop at McDonald's. And he never lifts weights.

``I call him The Exception,'' Parra said, ``because he's an exception to every rule I've ever been taught or believed in, in being an athlete. Getting sleep, eating right, no fast food, cross-training, no alcohol, everything. You name it, he does just the opposite and it works.''

Hedrick grew up on roller skates; his father owned a skating rink in the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas. He won dozens of inline championships, but it was the Olympics cachet he craved, and Parra's successful switch was the final inspiration he needed.

His primary competition for a five-gold binge could be teammates Joey Cheek and Shani Davis in the 1,000, and Davis in the 1,500.

If Hedrick wins five golds, it wouldn't quite duplicate Heiden's feat at Lake Placid. Heiden won individual races at every distance, in 1980, from 500 meters up to 10,000. The three-man team pursuit race did not exist.

However, even Heiden concedes that specialization in the sport makes it extremely unlikely anyone ever again will have the speed and start to win the 500-meter sprint ... as well as the stamina and strength to win the 13-minute 10K.

Paul Oberjuerge, (909) 386-3865

paul.oberjuerge(at)sbsun.com

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Chad Hedrick could challenge Eric Heiden's record of five speedskating gold medals in the Turin Winter Olympics.

Dave Buston/AFP/Getty Images
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 9, 2006
Words:795
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