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Eric Flaim

He sat in the stands in Albertville in 1992, a spectator at short-track skating. This was not Eric Flaim's event. He was a long-track speed skater, accustomed to taking those long, almost lonesome laps against a clock rather than a pack of opponents. His own Olympic work in Albertville had finished on a downbeat note. A sixth-place performance in the 5,000 meters was followed by a 24th in the 1,500 {he had suffered an acute case of food poisoning the night before) and a 16th in the 1,000. Recovered now, he was at the short-track races just for fun.

"The only American male who had qualified, Andy Gabel, was eliminated in an early heat," says the 26-year-old Flaim, "so mostly I just watched the Koreans and the Japanese battle it out."

The event was as different from his event as possible. Heavy metal versus baroque chamber music. City driving versus desert highway traveling. Light versus dark. The skaters flew around the ice in a pack, everyone tilted precariously to one side like motorcycle racers on the fly, minus the motorcycles. Elbows often scraped the ice because the skaters were so low. It was a roller-derby sort of sight.

"I'd started out in pack skating the way most speed skaters do, simply because there aren't many speed skating ovals around, says the 5'8", 160-pound Flaim. "When I started, pack skating wasn't an Olympic medal sport, so the serious skaters went to the track. That was the idea, that the best skaters went to the track."

Sometime during that night in Albertville, where short track was a medal sport for the first time, an idea settled into Flaim's head. Why not try it in Liliehammer? What was there to lose? He had been following the traditional speed skating route since age 14, moving from his home in Pembroke, Mass., to Milwaukee to find the facilities and coaching necessary to compete on the international level. He had gotten a silver medal in the 1,500 and finished fourth in three other races at the '88 Olympics in Calgary. He was tired of the routine. He already spent his summers roller-blading, skating in packs in distance races on city streets across the country. So he figured, Why not move to the packs during the winter, too?

"A month after Albertville, a 1992 speed skating World Cup series was held in Butte, Montana, in March," says Flaim, "and when it ended, I drove down to Boulder, Colorado, where I decided I'd spend some time. The short-track team was practicing in Denver, so I went over there."

It was then that he decided to make the switch to short track. That necessitated a change in both equipment and style. The blade on the short-track skate is placed far to the left on a stiff high-tech boot, bent and angled, adjusted and readjusted as if it were the suspension in an Indy Car. Many of the tactics do, in fact, come from auto racing, involving drafting and passing and high-speed pacing. Agility becomes an added factor to the traditional speed skating requirements of power and speed.

Flaim failed in his first attempt at qualifying for the U.S. team; he was still learning the intricacies of the turns and how to interact with other skaters. But by March '93 he was on the roster and had set a world record for the short-track 1,500. By February '94...who knows? He has qualified for all three Olympic events in short track: the 500, the 1,000 and the 5,000 relay. His seat in the stands in Liliehammer will be at the traditional speed skating events. He will be part of the shorter mayhem this time.

"Sometimes we practice near the speed skaters inside the oval in Milwaukee, " he says. "I can see them looking over at us. We're the ones having the fun."



Racing in new events at this third Olympics, theU.S. skater could be leader of pack.