Witty goes from mono to golden world record

Diagnosed Jan. 18, she improves on '98 silver

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 18, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KEARNS, Utah - Behind the sunglasses that reflected the brilliant night lights in the Utah Olympic Oval, Chris Witty was shedding tears that seemed to cleanse her of all the fatigue, the doubt and, for the moment, the illness that made her feel as if she had been dragging an anvil for weeks.

Witty learned she had mononucleosis on Jan. 18. Last night, capping the most improbable triumph of her career, she not only shattered the world record in the women's 1,000-meter race but also captured the first gold medal for the U.S. women's speed skating team.

Witty, a 26-year-old from Wisconsin, became the first woman to break 1 minute, 14 seconds in the 1,000 meters by finishing in 1:13.83.

This is tired?

Mononucleosis can take up to a year to recover from, her doctors told her. Witty did not have a year. She had four weeks.

Last night, she burst through her own barriers, improving on the silver medal she won in the 1,000 meters four years ago in Nagano, Japan, before bursting into tears and keeping alive the streak started by Bonnie Blair in 1988 of an American medal in this distance.

"They were tears of joy and relief," Witty said. "It was just totally unexpected."

The former world record-holder, Sabine Voelker of Germany, also skated under 74 seconds, but her time of 1:13.96 was good enough for only a silver.

Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami won the bronze in 1:14.24, winning her first medal in her second Olympics.

It was just before the race that Blair's eyes twinkled when talking about Witty. "She is so strong," said Blair, a five-time gold medalist. "Chris is such a fighter; don't count her out."

Witty had won two medals in Nagano and worked vigorously in the year before these games. Perhaps it was too much training.

She moved to Park City, Utah, to acclimate herself to the altitude and the track. It seemed to work; last year she set a 1,000-meter world record at the Calgary Oval.

But during the World Cup season, something seemed to be very wrong. Witty did not earn a medal for the first time in seven years.

At first she was found to have anemia, but further tests revealed that she had mononucleosis.

Witty rested for a week and resumed her training. "I just have to listen to my body," she said.

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