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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    U.S. skater thrilled to be on same rink as Gunda

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Jennifer Rodriguez doesn't like the 5,000 meters. But she's willing to put up with the aching legs and the nauseating fatigue for a chance to skate with Gunda.
     The final speedskating race of the Nagano Games could be a moment etched in Olympic history -- Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann equaling Karin Enke-Kania's record of eight speedskating medals.
     "She's going to be a legend," Rodriguez said. "It's an honor just to be skating with her."
     The 31-year-old Niemann-Stirnemann came to Nagano with five medals and added two more with gold in the 3,000 and silver in the 1,500. She was denied the to spot in the 1,500 only because Marianne Timmer of the Netherlands set a world record.
     "You have to go on the ice knowing you are a strong skater, knowing that any of us could win, and bring the form and faith in yourself, bring everything onto the ice," Niemann-Stirnemann said. "Then you just have to see what happens."
     Kirstin Holum and Rodriguez are America's top hopefuls in Friday's 5,000, but neither was considered a strong medal contender in the longest race for women. Holum is only 17, while Rodriguez hasn't skated an international 5,000 all season.
     "It's not my best event, not my favorite event," said Rodriguez, the 21-year-old from south Florida who's skating four distances in her first Olympics.
     At least the young Americans didn't have to worry about carrying the country's speedskating hopes into the final race. Chris Witty ensured that the U.S. team wouldn't suffer its first medal shutout since 1984 when she captured a surprising bronze in the 1,500 on Monday.
     "It just makes me happy knowing that no matter what happens in the 1,000, I get to go home with something," said Witty, who was scheduled to skate the shorter distance Thursday.
     Witty, world record holder in the 1,000, hoped to emerge with gold against a deep field that included two Nagano gold medalists, Timmer and Catriona LeMay Doan of Canada, as well as Franziska Schenk of Germany.
     With apologies to Japanese hero Hiroyasu Shimizu, the medal-hoarding Dutch have clearly been the speedskating stars in Nagano. Before Thursday's race, they already had eclipsed their best performance ever with 10 medals -- including golds in four of the eight races -- and established themselves as one of the greatest Olympic teams on the 400-meter oval.
     Only four teams -- East Germany in 1988 (13 medals), the Soviet Union in 1964 (12), East Germany in 1984 and Germany in 1992 (11 each) -- have won more medals in a single Olympics than the Dutch.
     After a champagne-soaked celebration at Holland House following a 1-2-3 sweep of the men's 10,000, the Dutch were back at M-Wave bright and early Wednesday, the only off day of the competition.
     The Dutch passion for their sport was epitomized by coach Henk Gemser, who remained at the arena even after his team was finished training to help out skaters from Poland and Belarus.
     "We've had a great Olympics," said Peter Mueller, the American who coaches the Dutch sprinters. "I know the whole team is real happy, real motivated and real excited about what has happened with the games here. I think we could have won even more with a little bit of luck."
     Dutch skaters had finished fourth in three events and sprinter Erben Wennemars was knocked out of his three races with a separated shoulder, suffered in a crash that wasn't his fault. Remember, too, that 5,000 bronze medalist Bart Veldkamp is a native of Holland who now skates for Belgium merely because it suits his training schedule.
     "We have a problem in Holland with an overabundance of talent," Mueller said. "If you're not good every weekend, you're not going to make the team. A lot of times, we've been tired at the Olympics.
     "But this year, we had only one set of trials and I think the guys here are a lot fresher mentally and physically. We went out and showed that with our performance here."