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Olympic Champion Shani Davis Leads US Speed Skaters in World Cup Finals

The International Skating Union's Speed Skating World Cup finals are Friday and Saturday in Salt Lake City, Utah, with Olympic champion Shani Davis of the United States at the top of the standings in two events. All are eager to test the competition with less than a year to go before the Vancouver Winter Olympics in Canada.

The host United States will be represented by 11 athletes at the Speed Skating World Cup finals. More than 150 skaters from 17 countries are competing at the 2002 Olympic arena for individual titles in 10 long-track events.

Olympic gold medalist and 2009 World Sprint Champion Shani Davis, Olympic veteran Tucker Fredricks, and newcomer Trevor Marsicano are in solid contention to win a gold medal, while two-time Olympic medalist Jennifer Rodriguez and three-time national champion Elli Ochowicz pose the biggest threat to the top of the women's field.

Nineteen-year-old Marsicano, who has had a breakthrough year, says working with Davis and Fredricks was key to helping him elevate his performance.

"They are both world champions. It has been a great opportunity for me to be able to chase them and follow them and just kind of follow in their footsteps. And now that I am up to their level, and I can compete with them, it is even more of an honor," he said.

Three-time Olympian Jennifer Rodriguez returned to competitive speed skating after a two-year hiatus. She retired after the 2006 Turin Games, but says she rediscovered her passion for the sport early last year when she stepped on the ice for the first time since hanging up her skates.

Rodriguez added a World Cup gold medal to her trophy case last December, and has her sights set on competing at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She says her biggest challenge remains getting back into the top physical condition demanded of world-class speed skaters.

"Two years off of skating is a long time, and it has been a really up and down roller coaster of a process, and very frustrating at times, very rewarding at times, but that is speed skating," she said.

Two-time Olympian Elli Ochowicz says the addition of Rodriguez and national sprint champion Heather Richardson, as well as her own progress, have helped strengthen the U.S. women's team. Ochowicz predicts a significant change for the 2010 Olympics over the team's disappointing last two World Cup seasons.

"I think the biggest difference that we have now, is, we have all of this training together. We have definitely learned from each other, and used each other for our weaknesses and strengths. I definitely think that there is going to be big improvements next year, and a big, big leap compared to the 2006 Olympics, definitely," she said,

The World Cup finals have men's and women's races in distances of 100, 500, 1,000, and 1,500 meters. The men's longest race is 5,000 meters, while the women's is 3,000.