'The Exception' wins 1st U.S. gold

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— Chad Hedrick cut through the ice in his first Olympic race -- arms swinging furiously, body gently swaying, mouth hanging open. When he crossed the line, flipped back his hood and caught a glimpse of the scoreboard, it was time to let out a Texas-sized yell.

Yeeeaaaaah!

"The Exception" was downright exceptional.

Hedrick took the first step toward Eric Heiden's Holy Grail of Winter Olympic records -- five gold medals in 1980 -- with a dominating win Saturday in the 5,000 meters, the first speedskating race of the Turin Games.

Even though it's only one down and four to go, Hedrick doesn't plan for this to be his only trip to the top of the medals podium.

"I didn't come here to win one gold medal," said the 28-year-old Texan, flashing his toothy grin. "You're going to see my face a lot more."

While that was typical Hedrick bravado, the scene that unfolded before the race was hardly expected.

After a light jog around the edge of the oval, he headed downstairs to get in some stretching. Suddenly, Hedrick's body began to shake. Then, the tears started to flow. Maybe it was the thought of his grandmother, who died 13 years earlier to the day. Maybe it was just the inevitable nervousness that goes along with that first Olympic race.

Whatever the case, it took a hug from his coach, some good-natured kidding from teammate Derek Parra and a quick visit with his family in the stands before Hedrick settled down.

Then, it was time to get down to business. When Hedrick stepped to the line, he was in control. The former world champion from inline skating, who made the switch to ice less than four years ago, knew it was his moment.

The ice was soft, making it difficult to build up power in the curves, but Hedrick persevered better than anyone else. His winning time of 6 minutes, 14.68 seconds was nearly six seconds off the world record but almost two seconds ahead of the runner-up, Sven Kramer of the Netherlands.

"He can work his way through the turns because he's physically stronger than the other skaters," said his father, Paul Hedrick. "And he's mentally stronger, too, so he can fight through the pain."

When Hedrick stepped to the line, he sucked in a couple of deep breaths before taking his stance. Then, he was off on a grueling, 12 1/2-lap journey, knowing that Kramer -- who broke Hedrick's world record back in November -- had already put up a time of 6:16.40.

Hedrick was a little off the leader's pace after the first half-lap, but he steadily chipped away at the deficit on the next two trips around the 400-meter oval. By the 1,400 mark, Hedrick had the best time on the board, a margin that grew to as much as 2 1/2 seconds over Kramer.

"After I got through the first four or five laps, I knew it was going to be a good day for me," Hedrick said. "Everything was working good. I was totally in control of my skating. I was like a quarterback who knows what the defense is doing."

When Hedrick made his victory lap around the rink, the predominantly Dutch crowd stood in unison and applauded the brash American who conquered its powerful team. Someone even tossed the Texan an orange cap -- the familiar color of the speedskating-crazed nation.

Kramer got a bad break when he was drawn to skate in the pairing ahead of Hedrick, giving the U.S. star a chance to see what time he needed to beat.

"This race was decided before the race," the 19-year-old said.

Enrico Fabris thrilled the few Italians who bothered to show up by rallying over the final laps to claim the bronze.

For Hedrick, it all began in suburban Houston, where his father owns a roller-skating rink. Dad guided his son toward skating -- on wheels, rather than ice -- when he was still a toddler and coached him through the formative years, prodding Chad with stinging criticism that proved to be the right motivational touch.

Hedrick didn't just get mad -- he became a champion, winning some 50 world titles on wheels before the lure of winning an Olympic medal drew him to speedskating shortly after Parra medaled at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002.

Hedrick was cheered on by first lady Laura Bush -- another Texan watching from the stands with daughter Barbara -- and Heiden, who still works with the U.S. speedskating program.

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