Adam Riedy left his family seven years ago. He moved from Lakewood to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, but not because he particularly hungered for skating glory. He went for a 14-year-old's reasons: His rivals were going, and he didn't want to be left behind. "He was always so competitive," says his mother, Karen.
U.S. Speedskating had more defined goals. It was grooming Riedy and a select group of his peers to become world-class short-track skaters. Riedy would turn 20 two months before the 2002 Olympics. It was to be his year, his Olympics.
So twice a day, six days a week, for 10 months a year, the nation's fastest young skaters raced together, worked out together, and lived together. "All we did was work out or plan for the next workout," Riedy says. Some skaters cracked under the stress. But Riedy, a bright, easygoing kid who liked the independence of living away from home, just got faster and faster.
He developed into a remarkably strong, agile skater -- one of the best in the world. Under normal circumstances, "There's no question he would have made the U.S. Olympic Team," says Katie Marquard, executive director of U.S. Speedskating.
Instead, at the Olympic trials last December, everything fell apart. First, his body failed him. Then his sport failed him.
Riedy believes he witnessed a plot to fix the final race of the trials. He overheard two longtime training partners in a suspicious conversation. When another skater challenged the results of the race, Riedy filed an affidavit supporting him.
He thought the people he respected would be on his side, but he was horrified by what happened next. He told the truth, he says, and no one wanted to hear it. "He was crucified," Karen says.
When the games were over, Riedy returned to Lakewood and stashed away his skates. Never mind that training had been his life for seven years. "I don't miss it," Riedy says, grinning. "I wake up in the morning and I think, 'Wow, I don't have to go skating.'" He pauses, then smiles again, but this time it doesn't quite reach his eyes.
Short-track skating lacks the elegance of its more established Olympic cousins. Unlike figure skating, it's about speed, not Vera Wang costumes or graceful spins. And unlike classic long track, it thrives on the jabs of competition. It's a pack speeding around a tight oval, skaters racing each other, not the clock. Skaters learn to find the tiniest openings and blast through them.
Much of that strategy is lost from the stands. From there, it looks rough and wild. Scott Koons, an assistant national coach, calls it NASCAR on ice.
Which makes it the perfect sport for this decade. NBC liked short track enough to broadcast the 2002 Olympic races during prime time. On many nights, short track racked up bigger crowds in Salt Lake City than figure skating. "People like the spills, the thrills, the high speeds," Koons says.
When Adam Riedy discovered short track in the late '80s, it wasn't such a draw. Kids didn't grow up dreaming of short-track glory. It was just something to do. The sport didn't gain Olympic status until 1992, and it has been a full-fledged medal sport only since 1998.
That was fine with Chuck and Karen Riedy. A plastics engineer and a teacher, respectively, they signed Adam up for classes at Lakewood's Winterhurst Ice Rink because they liked skating. That was it.
While Karen Riedy remembers Adam tearing around on the ice even in the beginning, it wasn't immediately clear that he had talent. Learn-to-skate programs follow an eight-step system for beginners, and Adam made it through only four steps before his teacher flunked him. Already ultra-competitive, Adam wasn't pleased with his report card. "I asked him, 'Where's your card?'" his mother remembers. "And it was in the trash can. He'd just ripped it up."
The instructor told Karen that Adam wouldn't be able to master the final four tiers unless he switched to figure skates. Chuck Riedy didn't want his only son to become the next Brian Boitano. "She knew better than to ask me about figure skates," he says.
Speed skating was a better fit. Dennis Marquard, one of Adam's Winterhurst coaches and the husband of Katie Marquard, pulled Chuck aside early and suggested Adam had talent. Koons, a Cleveland native who skated in the 1998 Olympics, remembers Adam as a standout even in grade school. He was always neck-and-neck with a skater from Broadview Heights named Ron Biondo. "When I was coming up in the ranks, I knew I'd pass it on to them someday," Koons says.
But young Riedy had other sports on his mind. In seventh grade, he followed a family friend to football practice at St. Luke's School. Even though Riedy went to a Lutheran school, coach John Middleton agreed to let him play, with one condition: He had to take catechism classes. Riedy agreed.
That year, St. Luke's won Lakewood's all-city championship. Riedy caught a 60-yard pass to score the winning touchdown. "He was just average size," Middleton says. "You wouldn't look at him and say he'd be phenomenal. But he had blinding speed." Coaches at Lutheran High School West in Rocky River began to eye him as a prospect, and he was getting inquiries from Catholic powerhouses St. Edward and St. Ignatius. "There were coaches who wanted him badly," Middleton says.
The summer before his freshman year, Riedy was invited to train with the junior national speed-skating team in Lake Placid. The coaches invited three rookies to stay the rest of the year: Riedy, Ron Biondo, and a short, pudgy guy from Seattle called "Chunk." His real name, now inscribed on Nike apparel everywhere, was Apolo Anton Ohno.
Both Biondo and Ohno accepted the invitation. Riedy said he'd consider it. He wanted to give high school a shot. "I wanted to see what I'd be missing." But he stayed at Lutheran West just one quarter. "You can only take so many pep rallies, so many football games," he says.
Karen Riedy was still hesitant. She called a coach at Lake Placid and tried to argue against her son's inclusion. He told her, "Adam has podium potential, and I don't mean local."
"That changed it for me," she says.
So Riedy returned to Lake Placid. For a while, training seemed almost like a game: One day Ohno was leading, the next day Biondo, the next day Riedy. It was an endless game of catching the guy in front. "We always chased each other," Riedy says. "None of us would have gotten to where we were except for each other."
Riedy lived in Lake Placid 10 months of the year for three years, then moved to Colorado Springs to train with the senior team.
Normal life sometimes beckoned. A frustrated Biondo succumbed and took a year off to go to high school. Riedy tried to squeeze his life into his two months off. He ran track for two years at Lutheran West, and despite spending two months a year in school, he managed to attend no fewer than eight proms. He met his girlfriend, a Magnificat student named Jane Mooney, one Christmas break. After they spent all seven days together, he returned to Colorado, warning that he didn't write letters. She bought him stamps. He wrote.
In the 1999-2000 season, Biondo's year off, Ohno finished 7th in the junior worlds; Riedy finished 10th. That spring, he graduated high school and returned to Colorado to train full-time.
In the December 2000 World Cup competition in Japan, Riedy won a bronze medal in the 1,000-meter race -- the highlight of his career to that point. He also won two relay medals. "Until then, I'd been training to keep up with the other guys," he says. "Then I did it for myself. I could finally see everything starting to pay off."
One week after returning from Japan, Riedy awoke to tingling toes. He went for a run. The tingling didn't subside. Instead, it crept up his right side and into his fingers. He told his trainer, who ran a battery of tests.
Riedy assumed the trouble stemmed from one of his seven concussions. Short-track skaters are always getting bruised and banged; he didn't imagine it was anything serious. "Then, as the sensations were finally stopping, I got this weird feeling like [the doctors] were whispering behind my back," he says. "Finally they said, 'We think you have a demyelinating disease.'" It meant nothing, until he punched the phrase into an Internet search engine. Suddenly he realized what they were whispering about: They thought he had multiple sclerosis.
It wasn't the Riedys' first experience with crippling illness. Adam's younger sister, Megan, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease three years before. She made a full recovery, but her experience was never far from her parents' minds.
Chuck flew to Colorado Springs to be with Adam during his spinal tap, as doctors punctured his lower spine, collected fluid, and analyzed it. He was there when the doctors confirmed their diagnosis. Adam had multiple sclerosis.
Devastated, Adam sent his father home. He didn't talk to anyone -- Mooney, his friends, his sisters -- for two weeks. No one was sure what to say anyway. "It was heartbreaking," Karen says.
Multiple sclerosis is a mystery. Researchers don't know why the body's immune system attacks its own nervous system. Nor do they know how to stop it.
They do know the results are devastating. Myelin, a fatty coating around the nerves, begins to shred and fray, exposing the nerves like an aging electrical cord. Vital messages telling muscles to move or react are lost somewhere in the space between nerve endings.
Symptoms can be erratic. A new MS patient might be fine for months or even years, then suffer a two-week flare-up of weakness, tingling, or pain. "It can be unpredictable," says Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic. "And what for other people might be a minor attack can be major for an athlete."
For years, physicians thought the best way to treat multiple sclerosis was passivity. Many patients ended up confined to wheelchairs. Now, with improved drugs, doctors start treatment immediately. While multiple sclerosis still can't be cured, the treatments have had some success in stopping damage from building up. Young adults have much better odds of an active life than the afflicted of 20 years ago, Cohen says.
Doctors told Riedy all of this. They also prescribed daily medicine. It was still scary. "To have something he couldn't control -- it was a huge thing," Mooney says.
The future was suddenly frightening. "So many times, I was on the other end of the phone in tears, trying not to let him know I was crying," Mooney says. "To hear someone say, 'I want to be able to play with my kids and run around outside with them, and now I might not be able to do that' -- that's horrible."
The speed-skating community was shocked. "There was surprise, and then there was denial," says U.S. Speedskating's Katie Marquard. "People were saying, 'He can't have that,' especially when he had just medaled in the World Cup that fall."
"A lot of people expected him to stop skating then and there," says skater Chris Needham.
But that possibility was never considered. U.S. National Coach Susan Ellis didn't see why Riedy should quit, especially when U.S. Speedskating agreed to continue sponsoring him. "They knew he might have another relapse, but they also knew that the chances were equally good that he would not," she says.
"He had set his goal on the Games, and there was absolutely no reason not to pursue that dream."
Teva Neuroscience, which manufactures the multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone, offers a program for athletes who stay active after diagnosis. The company liked Riedy's resilience enough to sign him up for Team Copaxone, relieving his family of thousands of dollars in drug costs each year.
"Adam had a very inspirational story," says John Shaw, the company's product manager. "Here's someone who wouldn't let multiple sclerosis stand in the way of his dream."
The dream faltered one morning last December, when Riedy felt the tingling again. It was his first attack since his diagnosis, and it couldn't have come at a worse time -- just seven days before the Olympic trials.
At first, the doctors hoped there would be time to stop it. Riedy already had dispensation from the Olympic committee to take steroids designed to halt an attack midswing. Three doses were supposed to be taken over three days, he says, but the attack came so close to the race that his doctors had no choice but to pump all three in at once. "That's something no one's ever done before," he says, laughing.
No one was laughing when the attack continued Monday, Tuesday, then Wednesday. By Thursday, Riedy was starting to feel better, but it wasn't enough. He went to the trials on Friday, his body weak, his heart heavy.
To advance to the next two weeks of finals, Riedy had to skate one of the 16 fastest times. Even from the sidelines, it was clear he wasn't fast enough. "His MS was kicking in, and you could tell," Koons says.
Thanks to his happy-go-lucky personality, Riedy had been a sentimental favorite of the speed-skating community for years. Seeing him trail Needham in the all-important time trial, so obviously fighting just to keep moving, was difficult, Koons says. "Everyone in the whole place was affected by that race. Seeing him in the condition he was in, it just brought tears to a lot of people's eyes."
Maureen Hangac, one of Riedy's best friends from Lake Placid, also watched the race. "I just stood there with another friend and said, 'This is terrible.' I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to go up to him afterwards, because I didn't know what to tell him. But he just came over and started crying."
The skater who was supposed to place in the top four finished 21st. He was out of the Olympics.
"It sucked for Adam, because he really deserved to go," says skater Tommy O'Hare. "To have it completely out of your control, knowing it had nothing to do with not training hard enough or working hard enough, and just to have it taken away from you . . . That's just really sad."
Riedy stayed in Salt Lake for the next week of qualifying races, watching others jockey for the opening his disappointment had created.
As predicted, Ohno was the star of the event, clinching a place on the team with victories in seven races. Other skaters Riedy had trained with over the years -- his longtime roommate Rusty Smith, Biondo, and 17-year-old J.P. Kepka -- also won spots, along with Harvard student Daniel Weinstein.
By the eighth and final race, the only question was who would be the team's sixth man. Shani Davis, Ohno's good friend, had a slim chance to beat 1998 Olympian O'Hare for the last spot. O'Hare was sixth overall; Davis could pass him only by winning the final four-man race. He would have to beat Biondo, Smith, and Ohno, all skaters who routinely beat him.
But the race was a huge upset. Davis somehow won, followed by Smith, then Ohno, then Biondo. O'Hare, who had thought the spot his, was stunned. Biondo also learned that a mathematical oddity had ended his chance for individual glory. Due to his surprising fourth-place finish, he made the Olympic team only as a relay skater.
Riedy knew something was wrong. He had been standing on the sidelines when he heard Ohno and Smith talking before the race. "Let [Davis] go if he has the lead with three laps to go," he heard Ohno say. At the end of the race, he saw Davis skate over to Smith and Ohno and thank them three times.
On its face, it was suspicious enough. It got worse when Riedy learned that two other skaters had also overheard disturbing conversations. One heard Ohno tell Smith that Davis "had worked harder than anyone out there" and deserved a spot on the team.
Needham would later swear to hearing Ohno lay out the plan in the locker room: "If [Davis] is in first with a couple laps to go, I am not going to pass him." Needham would also testify that he saw Ohno literally block Biondo at key points during the race.
Skating veteran Jim Chapin, the race's chief referee, believes that's exactly what happened. "I'll never change my opinion," he says. "A number of people saw the race and knew the sport, and they know what happened." But Chapin didn't think he had the power to do anything. He assumed U.S. Speedskating would examine the incident. "There was nothing in the rules I could call anyone on." Chapin certified the results, and Shani Davis, not Tommy O'Hare, was named to the Olympic team.
O'Hare and Riedy had always been friendly, but not exactly close. So O'Hare was surprised when Riedy called him later that day. Many of his close friends had quietly offered support, but added that they didn't want to get involved, he says. Riedy made no such qualifications. "He could have taken the road a lot of people took, to keep quiet and not put anything on the line," O'Hare says. "He certainly had nothing to gain by helping me out."
O'Hare hired a lawyer, and all hell broke loose. The lawyer accused Smith and Ohno of conspiring to fix the race and requested arbitration. Riedy and Needham filed affidavits to support O'Hare, swearing to what they had overheard. Chapin also filed an affidavit, alleging that the race's result had been "predetermined." Smith countered with a defamation lawsuit against O'Hare, charging that the allegations harmed his reputation and potentially cost him corporate sponsorships.
Three days into the arbitration hearing, O'Hare abruptly announced he was dropping his claim, and Smith dropped his lawsuit. Reporters speculated that a cash settlement was involved, but attorneys on both sides either denied the assertion or said the details were confidential. O'Hare says he can't comment on the settlement's specifics.
"I did as much as I possibly could," he says. "It's hard where you go in there every day, and 15 attorneys are going against you." An arbitrator issued an order of dismissal, saying that the race was "fairly run, fairly officiated, and not subject to change." Smith, Davis, and Ohno stayed on the team.
It was a hard ending for Riedy and the skaters who supported O'Hare. They found themselves vilified and alienated from longtime training partners. "I hope people realize that these sort of allegations are the unfortunate emotional response of competitors bitterly disappointed at not having made the Olympic team," Ohno's agent told The Denver Post.
The sport's officials seemed focused on protecting their top medal hope. U.S. Speedskating President Fred Benjamin told the media that witness statements had "turned to mush" in the arbitration hearing. Benjamin later apologized after Riedy angrily called The Denver Post and St. Louis Post-Dispatch to announce that he and the other skaters stood by their affidavits.
Karen Riedy was livid. "The papers were writing things like 'Apolo Anton Ohno had been exonerated.' Things like that," she says. "Well, they have to live with their consciences. My son doesn't have to. He can go to bed knowing what he did was right. The rest of them can't say that."
"A lot of people could have stood up," Chuck Riedy adds. "They didn't."
The training center in Colorado seethed with tension. Riedy wanted to leave, but he agreed to train with Biondo, who had testified for O'Hare and found himself estranged from the rest of the team.
When the Olympics came a month later, Riedy let go of his plans to serve as the fractured team's "assistant-assistant" coach and instead worked as a spotter for TV commentators and drove the U.S. Speedskating van. He and Needham slept on a pull-out couch in an overcrowded suite outside Olympic Village.
"I went from being part of the team to being the bitch for the team," he says. "I felt I should have more important things to do," he adds, then stops himself. "I was close to where I wanted to be, and yet I wasn't."
The games didn't go much better for the others. Smith won a bronze medal, but slipped in the relay and knocked the U.S. out of medal contention. It was Biondo's only medal opportunity, so he went home empty-handed. Shani Davis, the center of the ruckus, wasn't selected to skate in any event. He left Salt Lake early for a junior event in Italy.
Ohno, whom Sports Illustrated predicted would win up to four golds, took home a gold and a silver. Neither finish was glamorous. He earned the silver after falling and literally crawling across the line. The gold was awarded, ironically, after referees disqualified a South Korean skater for blocking him.
Irate Koreans crashed the U.S. Olympic Committee server with 16,000 angry e-mails and threatened to boycott the medal ceremony. But the controversies seemed only to add to short track's appeal. Just as figure skating got a huge ratings boost after Tonya Harding's boyfriend arranged the kneecapping of Nancy Kerrigan, the scandal at the U.S. trials and the subsequent Korean protest thrust short track into the media limelight. "It certainly made people aware of Apolo," Dennis Marquard admits.
After Salt Lake, Ohno chatted up Rosie and Jay and Conan. He signed a lucrative Nike contract, posed with Bill Clinton for W, and attended the White House Correspondents Dinner. In May, the guy Riedy still calls "Chunk" was named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People."
No other skaters reaped such rewards. Weinstein went back to Harvard. Kepka and Davis went back to training. Biondo won a bronze in the world championships and set a national record, then headed home to Broadview Heights to contemplate his next move.
Even Smith, who's had an agent since he was 16, couldn't turn his medal into money. His website, rustysmith.com, offers computer "wallpaper" with his face, but it also notes he's working at Home Depot. (Smith did not respond to interview requests.)
But if the skaters are jealous of Ohno, they aren't admitting it. They save their irritation for their own limited options. Figure skating offers a series of lucrative competitions for its stars and Ice Capades for its also-rans. Hockey players can go pro. But speed skating can't even net its top athletes college scholarships.
"A lot of the guys in the U.S. are really good skaters," Biondo says. "But they don't have the options Apolo does."
With a successful Olympics and the birth of the sport's first superstar, U.S. Speedskating became even more intent on ending the controversy of the trials. "It was an unfortunate incident all around," director Katie Marquard says. "Now it's over, and we need to repair the damage and move on."
Plenty of skaters suggest ideas for "repair," including rule changes, added sanctions for foul play, and instant replay. Marquard offers a different solution. "People need to stop talking about it," she says. "It's over."
Riedy and his friends disagree. "All they have to do is admit that it happened -- that it was wrong and that someone was at fault," Riedy says. "You leave it untouched, and people say, 'They did it, and they got away with it.' That's what everyone is saying now." Needham suggests that U.S. Speedskating is suffering from the "Cardinal Bernard Law Syndrome."
But few plan to devote more energy to fighting it. Hangac and Needham have quit the sport. O'Hare is going to law school. If he keeps skating, it will be long track. Biondo says he'll probably stay with short track, but he doesn't want to rehash the controversy. "What am I going to do?" he says. "Nothing's going to change."
After the Olympics, Riedy drove to Colorado to get his stuff, then returned to Lakewood for good. He has no plans to skate again.
His mother blames his decision on the controversy. At Christmas, after his disappointing finish but before the arbitration hearing, he talked about dealing with another multiple sclerosis attack in training. "He still wanted to go back and do it again," Karen says. "There wasn't a doubt in my mind he'd compete again."
Arbitration and its aftermath changed his perspective, Riedy admits. He left Colorado because he lost respect for most of the team and didn't want to condone its actions by staying, he says. He also lost his faith in the sport and its leaders.
Yet he believes he would have quit regardless. "At first, after the attack, I was so upset, I wanted to go back and prove to myself that I could still do it," Riedy says. "But I knew I wanted to go back to school and get on with my life. I didn't want to put my life on hold for another four years."
If he knew it would end this way, he might not have trained so hard for so long. "I think I would have stayed in the sport, but I don't think I would have given it as much as I did." And he can't help but wonder where he'd be if he had gone to St. Ed's and played football. "I could have college paid for," he says. "Maybe someday I'll mature and think I've gained so much from this sport. But when you have only one thing in your mind for so long, it's hard to put that out."
Time is helping. Riedy has a job repairing and delivering fitness equipment. He likes working with his hands. He also enrolled in Lorain County Community College's summer session and plans to take premed classes there for two years to save money for a four-year school.
He tells friends he's the happiest he's been in years.
Mooney believes him. "He keeps saying, this is what he's always wanted to do . . . to have a porch, to come home from work and make some burgers and sit outside. He's happy to be home and have his family around. He lived that life for seven years. That's longer than most people are in college."
Riedy hasn't had a multiple sclerosis attack since the Olympic trials. He's running and biking in duathlons for Team Copaxone. He feels healthy and happy.
"There, you were building up to three competitions a year, that was it. And really, it was four years building up to one competition: the Olympics. That's what drives you crazy," he says. "Here, I get to see the results of what I'm doing every day. And nothing I do now, I have to do."
For the first time in seven years, Riedy is just a normal guy. For now, it feels wonderful.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.