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Rodriguez Heating Up Oval

WINTER OLYMPICS 1998 | RANDY HARVEY

February 12, 1998|RANDY HARVEY

NAGANO, Japan — I went to the M-Wave on Wednesday to see Kirstin Holum. If any American speedskater would contend for a medal in the women's 3,000 meters, she figured to be the one.

Some people are born with silver spoons. Holum was born with silver skates.

She's coached by her mother, Dianne Holum, whose credentials are impeccable. She coached Eric Heiden, who won five speedskating gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and won four medals herself, the first at age 16 in 1968.

Competing in her first Winter Games at 17, Kirstin also had the best imaginable pairing, skating with her childhood idol and the favorite, Germany's Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann.

Who could have guessed that Holum would spend her four minutes plus on the oval chasing not only Niemann-Stirnemann but also Jennifer Rodriguez?

While Dianne skated at the perimeter of the track, crouching when her daughter sped past on each lap to call out splits, Rodriguez's parents, Joe and Barbara, sat in the stands and wondered what they were watching.

The parents of one of the other U.S. competitors, Catherine Raney, tried to explain it to them.

"Yeah," Raney said, laughing about the Rodriguezes' impromptu tutoring session, "they're from Miami."

There was one thing they could figure out for themselves. When Rodriguez crossed the finish line, the scoreboard flashed her time of 4 minutes 11.64 seconds and the letters OR. No one who has been watching speedskating here this week could have missed that that stands for Olympic record.

"This has got to be the greatest story of the Olympics!" Joe said, yelling loudly enough that he could probably be heard in his native Cuba.

It wasn't quite that. By the time the final 10 skaters had finished, Rodriguez had dropped to fourth place behind three Germans, and gold-medalist Niemann-Stirnemann had the Olympic record at 4:07.29.

Still, Rodriguez finished two places ahead of Holum and broke her American record, not bad for the first Hispanic American to compete in the Winter Olympics.

You think Joe Rodriguez imagined back in Cuba that a daughter of his would ever accomplish that?

He couldn't even have imagined it two years ago.

It's not that Jennifer, 21, isn't an outstanding athlete. As an artistic and speed roller skater, she won 12 world championship and five U.S. Olympic Festival medals.

"If roller skating had been in the Olympics, I would have had a medal a long time ago," she said earlier this winter.

But it wasn't until the winter of 1996 that she had ever so much as laced on a pair of speedskates.

Her boyfriend, KC Boutiette, talked her into it. He switched from in-line roller skating to speedskating in 1993 and made the U.S. Olympic team that competed in Hamar, Norway, one year later. He persuaded Rodriguez to attempt a similar transition.

"The first reason I did it was because I wanted to be with him, and I knew he wasn't moving to Miami because he trained in Milwaukee," she said after her race Wednesday. "The second reason was that he told me I could make it to the Olympics, and that's something I had been dreaming about my entire life."

Asked about learning to skate on ice, she took a couple of steps back from the rail that separated her from reporters and staggered forward, acting out how she looked then on the Pettit Center oval in West Allis, Wis.

"I wasn't exactly hugging the rail, but I would skate a couple of small circles and then have to go to the side and hang on," she said.

"I really had to swallow my pride because I went from being a top in-line skater to someone not knowing how to stand."

She didn't like ice skating. She didn't like winter. She didn't like Milwaukee.

Boutiette reminded her that she didn't like him the first time they met.

"I thought he was the grossest guy ever," she said.

She persevered, earned a berth on the national team in her first year in Milwaukee and now has one fourth-place finish in the Winter Games with three races left--the 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000.

"This is the biggest shock of my life," she said. "All I wanted to do was finish in the top 16 so that I would qualify to race in the 5,000."

It also was a shock to her Dutch-born coach, Gerard Kemkers.

"I predicted 11th place, 11th to 18th," he said. "She did this all herself. A girl from Miami who had never even seen snow until two years ago, I've never seen anything like this in the sport."

A reporter mentioned that Rodriguez excelled despite troubling personal circumstances.

"What do you mean?" Kemkers said.

The reporter told him that Rodriguez's Boston-born mother, Barbara, had a bilateral mastectomy for recurring cancer in September and had gone to West Allis for the Olympic trials last month between chemotherapy treatments. Joe said Wednesday that his daughter dedicated her performance to her mother.

"That's Jennifer," Kemkers said. "She never mentioned it. She never asked for one or two days off so that she could go home. She's a tough girl."

Kirstin Holum repeated Wednesday that she's quitting the sport after this season, that she has speedskated for one lifetime and is going to art school. Rodriguez said she's just getting started. She said she's going for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

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