Hedrick Wins First U.S. Gold

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Chad Hedrick of the U.S. celebrates after winning gold in the men's 5000m speed skating final on Saturday

Two hours before the most important race of his career, U.S. speed skater Chad Hedrick was a calamity. Thirteen years ago to this very day, his grandmother, Geraldine Hedrick—"my buddy"—died of brain cancer. The combination of grief, cabin fever— he arrived in Torino twelve days before the Games ("rolling around in bed takes it toll on you")—and the pressure of his first Olympic race drove Hedrick to tears. And into the stands, where friends and family tried to calm his down. "I kind of felt like a sissy," says Hedrick.

Some calamity. Some sissy. Hedrick, the Texan known as "The Exception" for his twang and hard-charging lifestyle in an often stodgy Euro-centric sport, won America's first gold medal in Torino on Saturday, finishing the 5,000-meters in 6:14:68, just two-hundredths behind the Olympic record. "She gave me a little extra push today," Hedrick, a Houston native, says of Geraldine. "I could just feel it." One down, four to go: Hedrick, who is chasing Eric Heiden's record five speed skating gold medals, will next race on Wednesday, in the Team Pursuit, a new event for the Torino Games. In the pursuit, two countries, each with three skaters, race head-to-head in an eight-team tournament. The three teammates take turns "pulling," or leading, the team throughout eight laps (in long-track speed skating, the oval is 400-meters). The team whose third skater crosses the finish line first is the winner.

In a surprise twist, however, fellow U.S. star, and rival Shani Davis announced after his eighth-place finish in the 5000-meter race that he would skip the team pursuit to focus on training for the 1000 meters, in which he holds the world record. Without Davis, Hedrick's quest could end early, as the Netherlands are now the favorites. U.S. Speedskating coach Bart Schoute didn't expect Davis' decision—he refused to comment after the media relayed Davis' announcement to him. Davis also cites altruistic reasons for his choice: U.S. skaters Clay Mull and Charles Ryan Leveille are pursuit specialists, any may now get a chance to skate in the Olympics since Davis has pulled out. "I didn't think it was fair to take away a chance for someone else to skate," Davis says. "Everyone has dreams."

But another teammate's dream may now die. Hedrick clearly isn't thrilled, though he won't complain. "I'm not going to beg Shani to a skate the pursuit with me," says Hedrick, who met Laura Bush at the previous night's opening ceremonies—nd couldn't believe she recognized her fellow Texan. "It's his prerogative—it's just his way." Plus, Hedrick wanted to relish his gold. "I've never been one to go home and go to bed at 10:00 when I do something well," he says. Chad Hedrick, with three days to recover from a busy night? Davis or not, the Dutch should watch out.