SUNSET BEACH — Rusty Smith took off like a rocket the first time he strapped on a pair of ice skates. His mother's fears that the 12-year-old might slip on the ice--an element alien to a kid from Southern California--were unfounded.
In those skates, Rusty Smith found freedom from the limits of friction. He hurtled around the rink at Iceland in Paramount at speeds that turned the heads of veteran speedskating competitors. A week later, he won his first speedskating competition.
Last weekend, Smith, now an 18-year-old man with powerful legs that push him up to 35 mph on the ice, edged out veteran competitors at the Olympic team trials in Lake Placid, earning the No. 2 spot on the U.S. speedskating team heading to Japan next month.
The speed that secured Smith spots on the 500-meter and 1,000-meter solo races, and a spot on the 5,000-meter relay team may well get him a medal.
"He's skating faster than anyone in the world," said Robert Ahlke, a family friend and Smith's skating pal for five years. "He has beaten, for sure, everyone in the world, so he knows he can win. He's just got to stay on his feet. He's always out there on the edge, hanging on.
"I think, out of the nine medals available to him, he'll come home with one."
The fact that Smith's home is only a few yards from the beach makes him the butt of jokes among the world's top skaters, most of whom hail from frostier locales. They often wonder aloud how Smith, an avid surfer and mountain biker, could be a contender in a sport that requires subzero temperatures.
"I get it constantly," Smith said on Thursday from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He doesn't let it get to him.
"I'm just trying to relax, stay focused on what I have to do," Smith said.
His coaches and friends say focus is not a problem. Rusty Smith's road to the Olympics, including injuries, financial hardship and determination to stay in school, was harder than many athletes'. And that, his supporters say, is his edge.
"Rusty's had to earn everything he's got; he's the underdog," said Ahlke, who helped Smith buy his first pair of long-bladed speed skates in 1992.
At age 15, Smith, already a successful skater in regional competitions, edged into the last spot in an Olympic skating program in Lake Placid, N.Y. He quickly left his classmates in a spray of ice crystals, winning a national title within a year.
"Before that, he was like the little engine who's, 'I think I can, I think I can,' " Ahlke said. "When he won that medal, suddenly he goes, 'I can do it, I can do it.' "
Meanwhile, Smith struggled to get through high school. His teachers at a public school in Colorado were unforgiving about his long absences, but he prevailed with passing grades and summer school. Smith got his diploma from Ocean View High School before his 18th birthday last August. Most competitors have tutors and take the high school equivalency exam.
But while his Olympic potential blossomed, his family's savings dwindled. His mother, Paula Smith, cashed in her profit from the sale of their North Long Beach house to pay off some training bills, but more were coming. She said she can't begin to count up the thousands of dollars she has pumped into her son's quest for Olympic gold.
"We tried to get some sponsorship, but you only get that when you're somebody, and, really, you need it most when you're a nobody," she said.
She cut corners where she could, worked overtime at her job selling aircraft rivets, cut hair and sewed clothes for extra cash. Friends gave Rusty Smith training equipment and donated frequent flier miles so he could travel to Lake Placid, Europe and other places to compete. His mother's phone bills frequently total hundreds of dollars.
But, she says, it was all worth it. She's nervous and excited about flying to Japan to watch her son race in the Olympics. Her boss donated the air miles for her plane ticket.
Further draining the family finances were the budding Olympian's two major injuries in recent years. He was off the ice less than a month in 1996 after breaking his leg in a collision at one competition. Then he separated his shoulder during a spill at the Junior World championships in Italy last January. Six weeks after a major operation to repair torn shoulder ligaments that left him writhing in sleepless agony for days, Smith qualified for the World Team, his first step toward the Games in Nagano.
"He's worked his butt off," said Jerry Search, Smith's first skating coach from Long Beach. "He just seems to have that drive. That's why I think--if he's lucky--he can come home with a medal."
Smith's Olympic team leader and coach of four years, Patrick Wentland, agrees he has the drive to win a medal. But luck may be a necessary factor, since Smith's competition has more experience in high-pressure championships, including past Olympics.
"Rusty's probably one of our best medal hopes," Wentland said. "But he needs experience. I would say, probably by 2002, he'll be a medal winner for sure."
But Paula Smith predicts her son won't need luck to bring home Southern California's first Olympic speed-skating medal since Bill Disney won a silver in the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif.
"He's going to win," she said, beaming. "I know it, and he knows it. And when Rusty says he's going to do something, he's never wrong."