KEARNS, Utah -- American Casey FitzRandolph put himself in position to win a speedskating gold medal, posting the fastest time in the 500 meters Monday to gain a slight edge over defending gold medalist Hiroyasu Shimizu.
FitzRandolph, who struggled four years ago after switching to clapskates, set an Olympic record of 34.42 seconds and was just off Shimizu's world mark of 34.32.
Shimizu was the second-fastest skater at 34.61. There will be another 500 meters Tuesday, with a combination of the two times determining the winner.
"I'm happy today, but there's more time for happiness if I have another good race," FitzRandolph said. "It's all business right now."
American, Kip Carpenter, was a surprising third (34.68) after the first run. U.S. record holder Joey Cheek was seventh at 34.78, giving the home team a solid chance to earn a couple of medals Tuesday.
"This was my first Olympics," Carpenter said. "I couldn't wait any longer to go out there and rip it up."
He'll have an advantage on Tuesday when he starts from the inside lane and finishes on the wider outside lane, where it's easier to make the turn at speeds reaching nearly 40 mph.
Carpenter was the only top-five skater Monday who finished on the inside lane.
"I can skate another one just like that or better," said Carpenter, who will race alongside FitzRandolph in the final pairing. Shimizu will go in the next-to-last group.
Gold medal contender Jeremy Wotherspoon of Canada caught an edge just four strides off the starting line and tumbled to the ice. He hopped up quickly, but realized his medal hopes were over.
Wotherspoon, the silver medalist at Nagano, flipped down his hood and skated slowly around the ice, chucking his goggles in disgust.
"I was not happy to see Jeremy fall," said FitzRandolph, his close friend and training partner. "You want to beat the best. It's not so important to win, but that the best man wins."
For the first time in three days, there were no world records set at the oval in suburban Salt Lake City. But, with another race to go, there is still a chance that all 10 marks will fall at these games.
FitzRandolph was a disappointment in 1998. Considered a strong medal contender, he couldn't adjust to the revolutionary clapskates and finished sixth in the 500. He worked out the kinks after Nagano and arrived at the Olympics hoping to bring home medals in both the 500 and 1,000.
FitzRandolph didn't disappoint in his first race, exploding from the line to cover the first 100 meters in 9.45 seconds. Finishing up in the outside lane, he streaked around the final corner - his left hand briefly scraping the ice - to put up the best time of the day.
Shimizu was slowed by a hip injury this season but appears to have recovered at just the right time to defend his title. He is trying to become the first repeat winner since Germany's Jens-Uwe Mey in 1988 and '92.
FitzRandolph hopes to become America's first 500 champion - the equivalent of the 100-meter champion in track and field - since Eric Heiden in 1980.
Carpenter's performance was a stunner. He had never skated the 500 in less than 35 seconds before taking 0.34 seconds off his personal best.
Cheek, a 22-year-old former inliner from Greensboro, N.C., was the sensation of the U.S. trials in December, winning three events. He has a shot at a medal if he can put together a strong run on Tuesday, when he finishes on the outside lane.
The other American, Marc Pelchat, slipped on the opening straightaway, did a 360-degree turn and popped up to finish in 37.59.
"Years of hockey coming into practice there," Pelchat said. "If I can set a world record tomorrow, hopefully they'll forget about this."