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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    Dutch tap American medalist to coach sprints

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Even in the mammoth M-Wave, Peter Mueller is hard to overlook.
     Hands in his pockets, he cruises the far outside lane of the oval with his wraparound shades, messy waves of shoulder-length hair and a mischievous smile that make him look more like a ski bum than a speedskating coach.
     The talk is loose, but Mueller earns respect with his credentials. He coached Dan Jansen and Bonnie Blair, and he's the 1976 Olympic champion in the 1,000 meters, the only American male to win a speedskating gold medal at Innsbruck.
     So what's he doing wearing the orange and blue of the Dutch?
     "I always said it would be a dream to work in Holland with all the talent they have," said Mueller, who has been doing just that the past two years as their sprint coach.
     In the competitive world of speedskating, that makes about as much sense as a Dutch coach working for the United States.
     Meet Gerard Kemkers.
     He won the bronze medal for Holland at the Calgary Games in the 5,000 meters, a distance the U.S. has won only twice in Olympic history -- Irving Jafee in 1932 and Eric Heiden in 1980.
     Slightly balding, serious and a stickler for detail, Kemkers has been the U.S. all-around coach for two years and is just starting to develop a long-distance program.
     A smile crossed Kemkers face when he considered the irony.
     "I don't think that's any problem at all," he shrugged. "They went to the Dutch to get knowledge, and we went to the Americans to get knowledge."
     In both cases, it seems to be paying off.
     The Netherlands' strength has always been in the distances. Coming into the Nagano Games, 43 of their 47 medals were in the distance races -- 1,500 meters and longer.
     On Sunday, the Dutch men won their first Olympic gold in a sprint when Ids Postma won the 1,000 by seven-hundredths of a second over another Dutchman, Jan Bos.
     A day later, Marianne Timmer won the 1,500 by taking more than 2 1/2 seconds off her personal best and setting a world record.
     Timmer and Bos are part of the sprint team, which is Mueller's domain.
     "I needed someone who could mentally prepare me," said Bos, who only last month became the first Dutchman to win a world sprint championship. "I think I found it with Peter. That was the last step, and I think it was the best step."
     Mueller was the first to greet Timmer when she set her world record, hugging her so hard they both fell to the ice.
     "I think it's important to get some results," Mueller said. "Once you get results, it's easy to believe in yourself."
     The women's 1,500 was also a small victory for Kemkers.
     He talked Chris Witty into skating the 1,500, convincing her that training in the all-around program would make her a better sprinter.
     As Witty went down the backstretch, Kemkers waved his hand like a band leader to help her find the right rhythm. She wound up with an American record in the 1,500 and the bronze, the only American speedskating medal in Nagano thus far.
     Unlike the Dutch, the Americans' success usually come in the short races -- 35 of their 48 medals are in the sprints.
     "I guess in America we've always been confident of the sprint program," said Kemkers, grinning at his sudden use of "we."
     "There's been some concern about the long distance and all-around program, and they felt they had to look at the Netherlands, which has always been good," Kemkers said. "They brought me in, which makes sense."
     The last American to win a true distance race -- 3,000 or longer -- was Eric Heiden, who swept all five medals in 1980. His sister Beth also won the bronze in the 3,000 that year.
     But the U.S. is making strides. Jennifer Rodriguez, the 21-year-old former in-liner from Miami, missed the 3,000 bronze by just more than two seconds. Kirstin Holum, 17, finished sixth.
     As for the Dutch?
     They now have more 10 medals, the most ever by the Netherlands at the Olympics. The surprise is that three medals have come from the sprints.
     "I think they didn't believe that would happen, that they could sprint," Mueller said. "Any maybe I convinced them they could. There's no reason we can't be competitive in every event."