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    Saturday, February 21, 1998

    Gold for the Dutch, hope for the Americans

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- The Dutch created the clap skates and wound up with the most medals. The Japanese saluted a pint-sized hero who gave them their first Olympic victory on ice.
     The Americans? No gold in speedskating for the first time since 1984, but look out for Chris Witty & Co. in Salt Lake City.
     The Americans had at least one top-10 skater in every race but the men's 5,000. Although they didn't have a superstar like Bonnie Blair or Dan Jansen, they still finished only one medal short of their showing in Lillehammer four years ago.
     "We were looking at these games a little bit differently than in the past," said Gerard Kemkers, the U.S. all-around coach. "We wanted to have a good showing with more skaters and younger skaters, show we had some depth. To me, this is very rewarding."
     Witty was the only American medalist at M-Wave -- winning bronze in the 1,500 and silver in the 1,000 -- and the only U.S. athlete to win two medals in Nagano.
     But Kemkers pointed to a 21-year-old former in-line skater from south Florida as the biggest surprise of the games.
     Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami, who entered the frigid world of speedskating just two years ago, had three top 10s and became the first American woman to skate in four events since Beth Heiden in 1980.
     "I'm still learning the faces around here, and some of the big names have been coming up to me and saying, 'Good race,"' Rodriguez said. "They're actually talking to me. I'm just walking around here like a little kid."
     Nagano brought new life to the Netherlands, a country where speedskating became sport some 500 years ago. The Dutch have never had an Olympics quite like this one, though.
     They won five of the 10 races at the M-Wave and wound up with 11 medals overall. Their medal sweep in the 10,000 meters was the first in a men's race since the 1964 games in Innsbruck.
     Every night, the hoppin' Holland House had a new celebrity -- the gregarious Gianni Romme, who shattered the world record in the two distance races; Ids Postma, who became the first Dutchman to win a sprint by beating teammate Jan Bos in the 1,000; and Marianne Timmer, who joined Romme as a double gold medalist.
     Indeed, there was clapping both on and off the ice.
     It was the Dutch who first introduced the revolutionary clap skates, which the International Speedskating Union approved for the Nagano Games. A spring-loaded hinge allows the blade to stay on the ice a fraction of a second longer, snapping back into place in a rhythmic clapping sound around the oval.
     The difference?
     An Olympic record in every race, and five world records in all. In three races, the world record was topped by at least two skaters.
     Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann became the first woman to crack the seven-minute barrier in the 5,000, only to see fellow German Claudia Pechstein go just enough faster -- four-hundredths of a second -- to snatch the gold in the final event.
     In June, the ISU plans to consider whether it should distinguish records based on clap skates and traditional skates. But the Americans, initially opposed to the clap skates, had no complaints about the way things turned out in Nagano.
     "The best athletes won out there," Kemkers said. "This Olympics was not about equipment, not about technology. It was just about racing and getting to the finish line first."
     Romme finished in a time comparable to 80 meters ahead of Rintje Ritsma in the 5,000, and 130 meters ahead of Bob de Jong in the 10,000.
     "I think the records will be faster in a few years," Romme said. "This is only the beginning."
     The Dutch caused a stir with racing strips, squiggly pieces of foam sewn into the skinsuits that they claimed improved aerodynamics. But the biggest ruckus of all belonged to the Japanese, who pinned their hopes on Hiroyasu Shimizu, a 5-foot-4 bundle of energy -- and nerves.
     Sure, he held the world record in the 500 and was a favorite to win. But the pressure was overwhelming, the expectations so high that even the crown prince of Japan came to the M-Wave for the final.
     Shimizu didn't disappoint, responding to their pleas to "Race like the Wind."
     When it was over, his teammates flung him 15 feet into the air.
     Witty was also impressive. Feeling the heat as America's best hope for a medal, she bounced back from a poor race in the 500 to win bronze in the 1,500, an event she began racing only this year.
     At 22, Witty was the second-oldest member of the women's team. The youngest was Kirstin Holum, who at 17 plans to retire to study art.
     That still leaves plenty of promise for the Americans.
     "I can take these two races and apply them to the next Olympics," Witty said. "The next Olympics will be at home. I'll have the whole crowd cheering for me. I'm looking forward to next four years."