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    Tuesday, February 10, 1998

    Shimizu Gold: Japan celebrates

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- It wasn't enough that the son of the emperor was in the M-Wave.
     Hiroyasu Shimizu felt as if all of Japan had crammed into the cavernous speedskating hall, anxious to see whether one of its smallest athletes could fulfill the hopes of an entire nation.
     "About a week ago, I started to feel an uneasiness," said Shimizu, a 5-foot-4 sprinter who holds the world record in the 500 meters.
     "I started to worry: 'What if I do not achieve what everyone expects?' Some times I felt like I wanted to run away and be held."
     On Tuesday, he ran straight into the hearts of the Japanese. Transforming the throat-gripping pressure into power, Shimizu burst to an Olympic record in the 500 to give his country its first gold medal of the Nagano Games.
     In his victory laps around the oval, he shed tears every time he paused to salute. He bowed before Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Princess Masako, and was flung into the air six times by his teammates.
     The prime minister called with his congratulations, and within hours a banner headline in an extra edition of the Shinano Mainichi in Nagano proclaimed, "Shimizu Gold."
     Shimizu finished the race in 35.59 seconds, beating the Olympic record he had set the day before. For the first time in Olympic history, the 500 was decided by the combined time of two races.
     With every frantic, chopping stride, Shimizu moved closer to easing the pain of past Japanese failures in the Winter Games.
     There was Masahiko Harada, who blew his ski-jumping team's virtually unbeatable lead on the last jump in Lillehammer four years ago. And Midori Ito, who botched her short program in figure skating in 1992.
     As much as the Japanese speedskating team tried to deflect the pressure from Shimizu -- officias asked local reporters to keep their questions to a minimum in the days leading up to the games -- he could not escape it.
     He said he was nervous at the opening ceremony, where he was Japan's flag-bearer, and nervous after his first race, a 35.76 that set an Olympic record and raised Japanese hopes even higher.
     "Last night, I was dreaming that I won the race and I won the gold medal," Shimizu said. He imagined the flag of the Rising Sun riding high in the M-Wave as the national anthem rang through the hall.
     "Just dreaming of it in my bed, I cried," he said.
     Thousands of Japanese, cheering at the mention of his name, crowded six-deep on the edge of the concourse to catch a glimpse of Shimizu. In the midst of a wave of flags, they held blue signs imploring him to "Race like the wind."
     And when he crossed the finish line and whipped off the hood from his black-and-gold skin suit, he skated to the sideboard and hugged his coach.
     "After I realized I won, when I heard our national anthem and saw our national flag in the highest position, I cried," he said. "There was confusion whether this was still the dream I had in my bed or a reality."
     It was only the fourth gold medal the Japanese have won in the Winter Olympics.
     Their greatest speedskating hero until now had been Seiko Hashimoto, the bronze medalist in the 1,500 meters in 1992 who also took part as a cyclist in the Summer Games.
     "People rarely notice skaters in Japan," Shimizu said. "Probably because I'm so small, it was difficult for people to notice."
     Indeed, he is dwarfed by Canadians Jeremy Wotherspoon and Kevin Overland, the silver and bronze medalists, respectively.
     It didn't take long for his homeland to make him feel like a giant.
     "I wasn't all that interested in the games until today," said office worker Sayori Koyama. "But this is really moving."
     Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto called him after the race and said he "deeply impressed."
     It was a humbling moment for Japan's newest hero, who wondered what he had done to deserve a phone call.
     The answer from Hashimoto carried the sentiments of a nation.
     "Gold medals have that right."