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    Friday, February 20, 1998

    Pechstein makes mark by upsetting Gunda the Great

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Better watch out, Gunda. Claudia Pechstein is gaining on you.
     "I do think it will be possible in the next Olympics to win a few more medals," the 25-year-old Pechstein said. "I'm still at the right age to do that."
     She has a six-year advantage on Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, her fellow German who equaled a Winter Olympics record by winning her eighth individual medal Friday even though she lost a 5,000-meter showdown with Pechstein in an electrifying conclusion to the speedskating events at M-Wave.
     Pechstein, who's always accompanied by a stuffed polar bear she carries for luck and a hacking, asthma-like cough that makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable, has five medals in her career, including a gold and silver at Nagano.
     Her world-record victory in the 5,000 proved that she doesn't have to take a backseat to Niemann-Stirnemann -- or anyone else, for that matter -- even though it doesn't always seem that way.
     In the speedskating world, it's usually "Gunda this" and "Gunda that."
     "I think Gunda can be very proud of all her success," Pechstein said graciously. "That is what is first and foremost in the public's mind."
     Niemann-Stirnemann appeared to have wrapped up the gold medal by eclipsing what she called the "sonic barrier," becoming the first woman to skate the 5,000 in under seven minutes.
     But her world record of 6 minutes, 59.65 seconds lasted only until the next pair took the ice. Skating last, Pechstein edged Niemann-Stirnemann by a scant four-hundredths of a second, snatching away the world record and the gold medal.
     "When I watched Gunda race, I thought, 'OK, I'll have to go for the silver because her time is unattainable," said Pechstein, who set the fifth speedskating world record of these games by taking more than 14 seconds off her previous best time.
     Pechstein surged ahead of Niemann-Stirnemann's pace on the ninth of 12 1/2 laps and held on at the end. She zoomed across the finish line, gasped in awe when she saw the scoreboard and collapsed in the arms of her coach on the backstretch.
     "The last 100 meters, I was thinking, 'Maybe it's not so far to Gunda's time," she said. "'Maybe it is possible to break this one.' And you see what happened."
     With that, she held up her gold medal for all to see.
     Niemann-Stirnemann was watching from a bench on the inside of the track. When she saw Pechstein's time, she shrugged her shoulders, rubbed her nose with a water bottle and smiled weakly.
     Niemann-Stirnemann hasn't given up on the idea of returning for her fifth Olympics at Salt Lake City, even though she will be 35.
     "How long I will be able to continue is impossible to predict," she said. "But my race (Friday) showed me I'm in very good shape and can still be in the zone. That gives me great confidence."
     Two young Americans also gave a jolt to their confidence in Nagano. Seventeen-year-old Kirstin Holum broke her own junior world record and finished seventh -- just three seconds away from a bronze -- while 21-year-old Jennifer Rodriguez took 10th and became the first U.S. woman in 18 years to skate four events.
     Of course, Holum continues to insist that these are her last Olympics. She plans to retire after this season to pursue an art career.
     "That's another talent that I have. It's something I really want to do now," she said. "Why can't I be famous in that respect? The Olympics aren't the end-all."