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Witty Is Hungry Skater

December 8, 1995

Go ahead and call Chris Witty the new Bonnie Blair, then order her a pepperoni pizza. Witty is hungry _ for junk food and speedskating victories.

Less than a year after Blair hung up her skates after an unsurpassed career that included five Olympic gold medals, the U.S. speedskating program has produced another winner in Witty, a 20-year-old from West Allis, Wis.

In the first two World Cup meets of the season, Witty won both women’s 1,000-meter races, in Berlin and Heerenveen, the Netherlands. Even she says she was unprepared for so fast a start.

``I was surprised to do so well so early,″ Witty said. ``In Berlin, I had a cold I couldn’t believe, and in Heerenveen I didn’t skate very well. I was shocked.″

Winning when not at your best is the quintessential mark of a champion. And Nick Thometz, the U.S. speedskating coach, said Witty has been preparing to win for the last two years.

``She learns a lot from every competition,″ Thometz said. ``Chris probably surprises herself a little bit. But in the past few months I’ve said she’s going to be the top 1,000-meter skater in the world. She’s coming through for me.″

Speedskating has produced the bulk of the gold medals for the United States in recent Winter Olympics, and the bulk of them have come from Blair. She won the 500 meters in Calgary in 1988, the 500 and 1,000 in Albertville in 1992 and successfully defended both those titles in Lillehammer in 1994. Her five golds were the most ever won by a U.S. Olympic woman.

Now, Blair is gone, but not without a legacy. Witty’s home town is the capital of U.S. speedskating and she was exposed to the Blair phenomenon quickly.

``In 1988 at the World Sprint Championships in Milwaukee, I saw her skate and said, `Wow, that’s Bonnie Blair!‴ Witty said. ``It was good for me to watch how she trained, how she ate right compared to me and how she got the right amount of sleep. She was a role model for me.″

Trying to emulate her idol, Witty changed much of her training routine _ but not entirely.

``I was pretty much a junk-food junkie and I still have that fine quality in me,″ she said. ``I eat lots of pizza and a whole lot of ice cream. I’ll have a salad every once in a while.″

With the McDonald’s menu memorized from the McChicken sandwich (``That’s No. 4 on the board, by the way″) on down, Witty is terrorizing the tracks of Europe, where the reaction has been surprise mixed with resignation.

``There is a lot of, `Oh, another American, the new Bonnie Blair,‴ she said. ``I get a lot of that, and I don’t mind. I like it.″

Their styles are different. Blair, short and stocky, was a quick starter and a blur of speed from wire to wire. Witty, a 5-foot-6, is two inches taller and relies on power in the later stages, a fact that has held her back in the 500 meters so far.

``The 500 is a tough race, and Chris is trying to find her opening sequences,″ Thometz said. ``She and Bonnie have different styles, but they both are very successful.″

Although she never won before this season, Witty had previous success on the World Cup circuit, finishing second to Blair in the 1,000 at the World Sprint Championships last year and fifth in the final standings at that distance. Thometz feels the timing was right for her rise to the top.

``Without Bonnie around, it opened up the door,″ he said. ``There is a void at the top, with a handful of women able to win on any given day, and Chris is one of them.″

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