Hedrick overcomes emotion to put himself on map

TORINO -- So there the oh-so confident Texan was, calling over his coach for support and then rushing into the stands to find his family for a hug, so overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment that he began weeping like he was a figure skater.

And mind you, this was before the race.

"I've never been in that position before," Chad Hedrick said. "I sort of felt like a sissy."

There, there, Chad. Let it all out. We understand. Anyone would get a little misty if they skated in virtual anonymity half their lives only to wake up one morning and see USA on their uniform and realize they were about to race for their country in front of the entire world, including first lady Laura Bush.

Just imagine what it would have been like had someone really big, like Oprah, had been there.

Hedrick overcame his emotions to win anyway, beating world-record holder Sven Kramer of the Netherlands by nearly two seconds in the men's 5,000-meter speedskating race to become the first American to medal at these Olympics.

The victory opens the tantalizing possibility of Hedrick matching skating legend Eric Heiden's mark of five gold medals. Hedrick's five will have to include team pursuit, an event new to the Olympics this year.

"Right now, I'm just taking it one race at a time," Hedrick said. "It's my first Olympics and this was my first race. To speculate that I could do what Eric did, I'd like to downplay that a little bit."

His chances of matching Heiden are lessened by teammate Shani Davis' decision not to compete in the team pursuit. "I'm not going to beg Shani to skate pursuit with me," Hedrick said. "My goals now are to win the 1,000, the 1,500 and the 10,000 and then the pursuit. I'm going to make my team the best I can, but I'm not going to beg people to race with me. If he feels it's not right for him because of other events, that's his prerogative."

Hedrick, 28, is the latest former inline skater to find success on the ice, making the switch only after seeing Derek Parra win a gold medal in Salt Lake in 2002. He was a 50-time world champion in inline skating, which begs the question: How many world championships do they hold in that sport, anyway?

"As an inline skater, I was world champion for almost 10 years," Hedrick said. "I'd go home to Houston and tell people what I did, and nobody even knew what I was talking about. 'You're an inline speedskater? What's that?' I'm glad to say that after today, people are going to understand what I do. That's the biggest thing right now. That's so important to me to get that off my chest. So that when I say I'm an ice speedskater, everybody is going to know what it is."

That someone would move to speedskating to gain some notice is an indication of how truly obscure his previous sport was.

The other favorites in the 5,000 sat out Friday night's Opening Ceremony to rest up for the race -- "I said it was better to go to the [medal] ceremony," Italy's bronze medalist Enrico Fabris explained -- but Hedrick chose to march in with everyone else so he could take in the entire Olympic experience. That's when the reality of the situation sank in and the emotions began to hit.

Apparently, listening to Peter Gabriel was too much for him, as well.

"To walk in there and just feel the Olympic spirit and to know that I was representing my country against everyone else in the world was a special feeling for me today."

Saturday was the 13th anniversary of the death of Hedrick's grandmother, and all the emotions, pressures and pent-up anxieties finally spilled over about two hours before the race. He called over his coach, Bart Schouter, and began crying.

"That was concerning to see. It was unexpected," Schoute said. "Our sports psychologist did a great job of calming him down."

Evidently. Skating in the third-to-last pairing, Hedrick ripped a time of 6:14.68, just two-hundredths shy of the Olympic record. Kramer was second, 1.72 seconds back.

"The first five laps were effortless, and then someone up there gave me extra strength the rest of the way," Hedrick said.

"I guess the battle is before the race. All the thoughts that go through your head before the race are much harder than the race itself."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.