Chad Hedrick's earliest skating exploits foretold a promising athletic future. Growing up in Spring, Texas, Chad would stride frenetically around the roller rink run by his father, Paul, darting past slower targets and thrusting his arms aloft as he espied another skater he could pass. Even then, onlookers were captivated by the sight of him. He was, after all, only two years old and still chomping on his pacifier. "I learned how to walk on a pair of roller skates," says Chad.
Hedrick eventually traded wheels for blades, spending 10 years as the overall world in-line champion, and then long-bladed ice skates. Less than three years after taking up speedskating, he's a favorite to win multiple medals at the Winter Olympics in Turin. His technique is still unrefined, but he continues to delight in leaving his fellow skaters behind. "It seems like Chad can win any race," skating legend Eric Heiden marveled earlier this year. On Nov. 12 Hedrick blazed through the 5,000 meters in Calgary in a world-record 6:09.68, smashing the mark of Jochem Uytdehaage by five seconds, a Texas-sized whupping by skating standards. And on Nov. 18 in the 1,500 meters, Hedrick knocked .74 of a second off the world record and 1.46 seconds off his previous best, winning the event in 1:42.78 at a world cup event in Salt Lake City.
Of course Hedrick, 28, had some familiarity with the ice before he got into speedskating. He started playing hockey at age four and as a teenager was the center on an under-17 select team. But in-line skating was where he made his mark, racking up 50 world titles in distances from 300 meters to the 26.2-mile marathon. In 1998 Hedrick became the first in-liner to break the one-hour barrier for the marathon, finishing in 57:18 in Duluth, Minn.
Hedrick was vacationing in Las Vegas in 2002 when he saw Derek Parra, a former in-line skating rival, win a gold medal in the 1,500-meter speedskating event at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. "That will be me in four years," Hedrick told his father. It was clear by then that in-line skating wasn't going to become an Olympic sport, so Hedrick arranged a tryout with the national speedskating team as it trained in Salt Lake City later that fall. "The first day I took out my in-line helmet, and then I realized that those guys didn't wear helmets," Hedrick says. "I put it back in my bag and tried to play it off."
His next equipment gaffe was more conspicuous. He forgot to take the rubber guards off his clap skates before stepping onto the ice. "I fell flat on my butt in front of the national team," he says. "Good start."
But Hedrick brought his own unique style from in-line skating to the ice. Instead of alternating push and glide strokes on the straightaways, as most speedskaters do, he employed a technique that teammates called a "double push," rolling from edge to edge on his blade, pushing with every stroke. Though coaches tried to change him, Hedrick stuck to his unorthodox form and within months placed fifth in the 5,000 meters at the 2003 World Single Distance Championships in Berlin. In February 2004 he became only the third American, after Heiden and Eric Flaim, to win the World Allround Championship, breaking a nine-year Dutch stranglehold on the event.
Form isn't the only area in which Hedrick has differed with his coaches. He refuses to lift weights, opting instead for interval training on a treadmill. When other skaters cross-train with hundred-mile bike rides, Hedrick follows along on in-line skates. More troubling, though, was a recent Toronto Star story quoting Hedrick's coach, Bart Schouten, saying, "He does come drunk [to] practice every now and then." But the Dutch-born coach says his words were misconstrued. "Chad may have fun, but he does not arrive drunk, and nobody works harder in practice," Schouten says.
The U.S. Olympic long-track squads won't be chosen until later this month, but Hedrick is a near lock to make the team and could qualify at four distances--the 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Once he arrives in Turin, he'll be sure to note his room number in the Olympic Village. He often finds superstitious significance in random numbers. "Something with a 2 would work," he says. "If I don't come back with at least two gold medals, I'll be disappointed."
If Chad Hedrick makes it to the Turin Games, he'll join a short list of Texas natives--seven in all--who have represented the U.S. at the Winter Olympics. Here's how they fared:
* Team alternate