Kuck, Rookard earn return trips to the Olympics

PAUL NEWBERRY (AP National Writer)

KEARNS, Utah (AP) -- Jonathan Kuck is heading back to the Olympics.

That wasn't enough reason to take a gulp of champagne.

Kuck dominated the men's 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic speedskating trials Friday night, then popped a bottle of bubbly on the victory stand. While third-place finisher Patrick Meek was eager to take a swig, Kuck got a whiff of the bottle and passed.

''I figured that would be a bad time to start drinking,'' he said, breaking into a big grin.

High school senior Emery Lehman finished about 6 seconds behind Kuck in the 12 1/2-lap race, tiring noticeably at the end of the grueling event but hanging on to claim the second of three expected spots on the Olympic team.

''Top three is all I wanted,'' said Lehman, who is from suburban Chicago and proudly wore a Bears scarf on the medals podium. ''I still can't believe it. It probably won't hit me for a few days.''

On the women's side, Jilleanne Rookard claimed her second straight trip to the Olympics with a commanding victory in the 3,000, coming back from couple of poor seasons that left her wondering if she wanted to keep skating. She actually walked away from the sport less than a year ago, taking four months off before returning to the ice.

''Physically, emotionally, mentally - everything just kind of collapsed,'' she recalled.

Kuck was a silver medalist in team pursuit at the Vancouver Olympics and finished eighth in the 10,000, his only individual event. He romped to victory in the 5,000 with a time of 6 minutes, 19.75 seconds.

Lehman was next at 6:25.72, followed by Meek in 6:27.90. No one else was within 8 seconds of the top three.

''It's different,'' Kuck said. ''I guess it's a lot more exciting to make your first Olympic team than the second one. But I've done it once before, so hopefully I'll be better prepared this time.''

While Kuck didn't much emotion, Meek was so giddy about his performance that he broke training.

''I haven't had a drink in about 18 months,'' he said. ''I figure if there was a time to take a little bit of champagne, it was on the podium.''

The 30-year-old Rookard won the first event of the trials with a time of 4:09.66 - more than 4 seconds ahead of the next-fastest skater.

She was 12th in the 3,000 at the 2010 Vancouver Games, competing just a couple of months after cancer claimed her mother's life. She never sufficiently grieved over the loss, and it finally caught up with her.

Last season, Rookard walked away shortly before the world championships, packing her car and heading back to her family home in Michigan. Her coaches frantically tried to persuade her to get on a plane, but she had reached her breaking point. It was only after four months off that she felt ready to resume her career.

''I went through some big depression the last couple of years,'' Rookard said. ''I didn't have any decompression time. That was a big learning point for me.''

Rookard moved to Norway before this season to train with coach Peter Mueller, a U.S. Olympic champion. The change revitalized Rookard's passion for the sport.

She wound up making the Olympic team easily, far ahead of Anna Ringsred at 4:13.80. The top two are expected to be selected to the Olympic team when it is officially announced on New Year's Day.

Ringsred, 29, will likely be heading to her first Olympics after a 15-year-old skating career. She was already planning to retire after this season, so she knew this was her final opportunity.

''I really wanted it,'' she said. ''I was so scared going into this. A lot was at stake. This was my last chance. I can't believe it. I made it.''

Ringsred's triumph meant heartache for 35-year-old Theresa Cliff-Ryan, who finished third in a personal-best 4:14.56 but just missed a spot on the team.

It was another close call in an athletic career filled with them.

Cliff-Ryan was a longtime inline skater who switched to cycling in an attempt to make the Summer Olympics. She barely failed to qualify for the U.S. team in both 2008 and 2012, then went back to skating - on blades instead of wheels - in a last-ditch attempt to make the Winter Games.

After just 6 1/2 months on ice, she nearly pulled it off.

''It's disappointing,'' Cliff-Ryan said. ''But I'm pretty proud of what I've done.''

The trials are being held at the Utah Olympic Oval, site of speedskating during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.


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