The heir to Bonnie Blair and an American tradition of superlative speedskating missed an Olympic gold medal by 28/100 of a second Thursday afternoon. About the blink of an eye. Maybe one yard over 1,000 meters. Witty finished second to Marianne Timmer of the Netherlands by a margin she might well have made up had she not been forced to hold herself back.
A first false start requires a re-start. A second means automatic disqualification. Witty always will wonder if her momentary hesitation cost her the middle spot on the medals stand. She is not, however, inclined to brood about it.
Witty admitted she was initially ''bummed'' by her near-miss. An hour later, she was approaching serenity. She still has the world record at 1,000 meters, and she still has time to add to her trophy case.
''It's really hard to be that close to gold,'' she said. ''It really is. But there are so many athletes in the world. It's hard just to get to the Olympics. Once you get there, only so many people go home with a medal, and I've got two. I have be happy with that. Second place isn't bad. Silver is a lot shinier than bronze.''
Previously third at 1,500 meters, Witty's two medals were the only ones won by an American long-track speedskater entering today's final event, the women's 5,000 meters.
If she has yet to raise her profile to the same plateau as the prolific Blair, Witty has at least established her identity.
''I've got my own medals now,'' she said. ''Hopefully, I'll have my own name. Hopefully I'm out of the shadow of the great Bonnie Blair. It's not such a bad thing - it's a pretty good person to be compared to - but I think now people will remember Chris Witty.''
She may prove virtually unavoidable. An alternate for the 1996 Summer Games, Witty plans to skip part of her next skating season to pursue cycling more seriously. At 22, Witty's world is still brimming with possibilities and short on regrets.
''I think I'm still kind of young as far as the skating goes,'' she said. ''Bonnie Blair set world records at 31. So I think for the next Olympics, I can go over these races and learn from my mistakes and perform (better) at the next Olympics.''
Her mistake Thursday was among the most common committed by sprinters. Witty tried to anticipate the starting pistol and crossed the starting line prematurely.
Timed correctly, it's a brilliant maneuver. Guessing wrong, however, can prevent a skater from going for the gold.
''I don't think it's going to help you,'' said Peter Mueller, who coached Blair, who now coaches the Netherlands and who won the Olympic 1,000 meters in 1976.
Forced to turn conservative on her second try, Witty was not as fast off her mark as six other skaters. After 500 meters, her time was less than 1 - 10th of a second off Timmer's pace.
Would she have won without the false start?
''I don't know,'' Witty said. ''That's hard to say. It's 1,000 meters and (the start) only affects the first 10 meters, I think.'' The finish affects a lot more. The most anguished competitor in any Olympic event is the person who finishes fourth. Next comes the runner-up.
''Everyone is out there fighting for that piece of gold,'' Mueller said. ''Bronze and silver are beautiful, but there's nothing like that top spot - the one day of your life you were the best at what you did in the entire world.''
Thursday, that person was Timmer. But just barely.
''I wish I was her,'' Chris Witty said. ''I'm a little jealous.''
Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.
Hockey team leaves ugly mark
Special Enquirer Olympics coverage