Inline Skaters Make Mark on the Ice

Joey Cheek skates in the men's 500-meter speed-skating final. i i

Joey Cheek skates in the men's 500-meter speed-skating final. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Joey Cheek skates in the men's 500-meter speed-skating final.

Joey Cheek skates in the men's 500-meter speed-skating final.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Turin gold medal winners Joey Cheek and Chad Hedrick started out as inline skaters before moving to the ice. It's a trend in speed skating these days, but one that wasn't initially welcomed by the sport's traditionalists.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Winter Olympics today: two American gold medal winners are back in action. Speed skaters Chad Hedrick and Joey Cheek are competing in the men's 1,000 meter event. The gold medals they won at earlier races aren't the only thing that Misters Hedrick and Cheek have in common. They both came from the world of inline skating, more popularly known as rollerblading. And they're not alone. The strong U.S. speed skating team features several former inliners, including the man who pioneered the switch from wheels to blades. From Turin, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

First off, a clarification. When we say Olympic medal winners Chad Hedrick, Joey Cheek, Derek Parra, Jennifer Rodriguez began their stellar careers inline skating, we're not talking about the spandex shorts, iPod, cruising the beachfront in Venice, California inline skating.

Mr. K.C. BOUTIETTE (U.S. Olympic Team, Speed Skating): There's a lot of pushing and shoving and knocking down and fighting, so it's kind of people would see that and maybe shy away from it.

GOLDMAN: Not K.C. Boutiette. He's the other prominent Olympic speed skater in Turin who started on wheels, and he loved inline skating. He was good at it, too. He started winning races, and like all good athletes Boutiette constantly pushed himself to get better. It led him to a decision in 1993 that resonates clearly in Turin almost 13 years later.

Mr. BOUTIETTE: I was like, where do I go from here? Well, if I want to get better at inlines, I'm going to go the ice and try to make my technique perfect.

GOLDMAN: K.C. Boutiette got on a bus and headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the center of the speed skating universe in the U.S. Speed skating is a winter sport steeped in Olympic tradition. Speed skaters are a tight-knit community who suddenly found in their midst the stranger from the world of wheels.

Mr. BOUTIETTE: And I know there was people pissed off, but you know what? No one did it to my face, because I was an outsider coming in, and I didn't take (BLEEP) from nobody. Maybe I come off as being a little bit aggressive, but here's a kid who, you know, I fight for a living in a world of inline skating.

GOLDMAN: Boutiette channeled his aggressiveness into hard work and video watching. Several weeks before the speed skating trials for that 1994 Olympics, he got a hold of a tape of Norwegian speed skating star Johann Olav Koss. Boutiette watched the tape constantly, learned from it, and, remarkably, qualified for the Olympics after winning two races at the trials.

Mr. PATRICK QUINN (K.C. Boutiette's Agent): And a number of us decided, hey, if he can do it, maybe we can too.

GOLDMAN: Before he was K.C. Boutiette's agent, Patrick Quinn was an inline skater who followed Boutiette into speed skating. So did others, like Derek Parra, who is one of the best inline skaters in the world. Para wanted to go to the Olympics, and inline skating wasn't in the summer games, so he followed the lead of his onetime inline teammate, Boutiette, but had a much harder transition.

Mr. DERRICK PARA (U.S. Olympic Team, Speed Skating): And I came to the ice, and I was getting beat by a 12-year old girl, just smoking me completely, and this was embarrassing. I wondered, what am I doing, and even the next few years when I was skating on World Cup, I was good enough to make World Cup teams, I was strong, I was an elite athlete, but technically I was just horrible.

GOLDMAN: Derek Parra, who won a gold and a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics, says, half-jokingly, he's still trying to master the different technique on ice.

In very basic terms, the transition involves moving from wheels, which grip more and allow the skater to move them around in more directions, to blades, which can't be manipulated as much and require the skater to glide in whatever direction the blades are pointing.

For K.C. Boutiette, American's speed skating success so far in Turin has been quite satisfying. He's been approached by veterans of the sport, like legendary Dan Jansen, who have thanked Boutiette for doing what he did: inspiring some, actively recruiting and teaching others, like Chad Hedrick, the speed skating star of these games. In four Olympics, Boutiette himself has never won a medal, at least in speed skating. He says he'd like to give snowboarding a try. He's 35, but never say never to a pioneer.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Turin.

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