MIAMI -- As a kindergartner, Eddy Alvarez was known as "Eddy the Jet." He would put on his inline skates and fly down the sidewalk. On weekends, he performed tricks and jumps to the delight of tourists on Ocean Drive.
Thirteen years later, he has the same nickname but now he flies around the ice, in the combustible sport known as short track speedskating.
Alvarez is so fast he's among the favorites to make the U.S. Winter Olympic team during trials starting Tuesday in Marquette, Mich. He will be competing against two-time Olympic gold medalist and "Dancing With the Stars" champion Apolo Anton Ohno -- among others -- for one of five spots.
If Alvarez qualifies, he will follow Jennifer Rodriguez as the second Cuban-American from Miami to make the U.S. Winter Olympic team and set his sights on racing at the 2010 Vancouver Games in February.
"I'm excited, I'm confident, I'm ready," Alvarez says.
Anything can happen in the unpredictable races of 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters. Skaters bump and crash as they churn around the track at 30 mph, using their pivot gloves to hold a sharp angle. The sport demands explosive acceleration, agility, endurance, a high pain threshold and keen tactical thinking. Disqualifications and bizarre finishes are common, leaving skaters and fans to shrug and say, "That's short track."
"Sometimes we're so close to the ice our knees hit it," Alvarez said. "Once you see it up close, you understand the intensity. And you're hooked."
This is the story of another kid from the subtropics excelling in a cold-weather sport. Like J-Rod, Alvarez switched from inline wheels to thin blades. But unlike J-Rod, who clung to the boards when she first braved the ice, Alvarez took to the slippery surface like a little Eric Heiden.
At age 10, with limited practice time at the Kendall Ice Arena under coach Bob Manning, Alvarez won national titles in inline, short track and long track.
"People asked me, 'So, can he play hockey?"' said Alvarez's father, Walter. "He could do gymnastics, water sports, basketball. He's a great dancer and was invited to all the quinceneras. What if I had given him a tennis racket? There's a lot more money in tennis than in speedskating."
He was popular at competitions because he was good and he was an oddity.
"They announced his name and hometown and people did a double-take and told me, 'We didn't know you had ice in Miami,"' said Alvarez's mother, Mabel.
Alvarez, 19, became friends with Rodriguez. Her father was born in Cuba. Both of Alvarez's parents were born in Cuba.
"Jen was an inspiration to me," said Alvarez, who grew up in Miami's Roads section.
"She told me any dream is possible."
They see each other almost every day at the Kearns oval in Utah, where they are national team members. Rodriguez, 32, a Miami Palmetto High graduate who won two long track bronze medals in 2002, is making a comeback, hoping to join her fourth Olympic team.
"Two Miamians in Opening Ceremonies -- that's the goal," Alvarez said.
Alvarez is making a comeback, too. He took three years off from skating to concentrate on baseball at Miami Columbus High, where he played shortstop and second base. He broke his ankle one week before short track trials in 2005.
"While he watched the Torino Olympics he cried as if he was actually there," Mabel said.
BACK ON TRACK
Alvarez figured he would accept a baseball scholarship from St. Thomas University. But he couldn't get the 2010 Olympics out of his mind.
"I used to lie in bed and tell my sister, 'I'm dreaming of ways to go faster,"' he said.
His father didn't think he would resume skating.
"One day out of the blue he said, 'Dad, I want to finish what I started, otherwise it will haunt me,"' Walter Alvarez said. "He can't conceive of anything more glorious than standing on the podium and hearing the national anthem."
Fifteen months ago, Alvarez moved to Long Beach, Calif., to train with coach Wilma Boomstra, whose short-track team is best in the nation. He had a lot of catching up to do.
"We had four-hour beach training sessions and he could hardly last for 30 minutes," Boomstra said.
Alvarez also followed the advice of brother Nick, a trainer who played seven years of minor-league baseball. He got pep talks from sister Nicole, a disc jockey in Los Angeles. He gets his will from Walter, owner of Prestress Concrete, and his perfectionism from Mabel.
As for his smooth form -- he was born with it.
"He has a natural feel for the ice," Boomstra said. "What he really learned was what true pain feels like and how to push through it. You train in that compressed, tuck position and produce tons of lactic acid."
Alvarez joined the national team in April and has been training under coaches Jae Su Chun and Jimmy Jang, formerly coaches of South Korea's top-ranked team.
Alvarez thinks he could outdance Ohno, the most famous team member. Maybe next week in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, he will outskate Ohno, too.
Walter and Mabel will be in the stands, waving their U.S. and Cuban flags and cheering for Eddy the Jet, the Miami kid with an affinity for cold, hard, unforgiving ice.