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    Monday, February 16, 1998

    Finally: Witty ends America's drought in speedskating

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Growing up in the blue-collar suburbs of Milwaukee, Chris Witty encountered the hard lessons of life at an early age.
     Her father was laid off from his job as a welder when Witty was 12 years old. Her mother worked, but barely made enough money to keep food on the table. In those trying times, speedskating seemed like a luxury that wouldn't fit into the family budget.
     "I remember coming home from school and saying, 'Dad, do you have a job today?"' Witty recalled.
     But Witty decided not to give up on speedskating -- even when it meant taking the ice in rusty-bladed skaes that were too big for her feet.
     "I held in there for a few years and it paid off," Witty said. "I knew what I was capable of."
     With that, she glanced down at the Olympic bronze medal hanging from her neck. On Monday, Witty gave the Americans their first speedskating medal of the Nagano Games with a third-place finish in the women's 1,500 meters, topped only by Holland's Marianne Timmer, who set a world record, and German great Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann.
     The panic light that was flashing when the U.S. team failed to win a medal in the first six races at M-Wave can be turned off now. No need to ask Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen to come out of retirement.
     "I think the Americans were a little hard on us, especially because Bonnie and Dan were gone," Witty said. "They didn't think there would be any medals this year. I'm just happy I pulled through for the team and I came up with a bronze."
     A gold would have been virtually impossible with the way Timmer skated. Like Witty, the 1,500 isn't her signature event, but Dutch woman skated more than 2 1/2 seconds faster than she's ever gone before, drawing a collective gasp from the crowd that seemed to suck all the air out of the cavernous M-Wave.
     "I've never seen her skate so well," Witty said. "I think she surprised everybody."
     When Timmer crossed the line in 1 minute, 57.58 seconds, eclipsing Catriona LeMay Doan's old mark of 1:57.87, she wobbled slightly and looked at the scoreboard with child-like amazement. It was the third world record in seven races at Nagano.
     "I couldn't believe I skated like that," Timmer admitted. "I thought if I had a good race, maybe I could get between third and sixth."
     Niemann-Stirnemann was favored to win her second gold of the games but had to settle for runner-up again. The 31-year-old German has two silvers and a bronze in the 1,500 and seven medals overall -- one short of countrywoman Karin Enke-Kania's Olympic record for most medals by a speedskater.
     Niemann-Stirnemann skated alone in the final heat when Canadian Cindy Overland withdrew because of sickness. Without another skater to set the pace and provide drafting help on the change-overs, Gunda the Great managed a gutsy 1:58.66 -- more than a second behind Timmer but just ahead of Witty's 1:58.97.
     "To skate alone is not the optimum situation for the Olympics," Niemann-Stirnemann said. "For that reason, I'm even happier to have won the silver medal."
     The eighth race of the Olympics, the 10,000, was set for Tuesday. Gianni Romme, who set a world record in the 5,000, was favored to give the Dutch their fourth speedskating gold medal of the games.
     There will be an off day Wednesday, then Timmer and Witty will face off again in the 1,000 -- a suddenly intriguing race after their performances Monday. Witty is the world record holder in the 1,000, while Timmer won the 1997 world championship at that distance.
     "Before, I thought the 1,000 was my best chance to do well," Timmer said. "Now, I really have good feeling about 1,000 and I'll go for it, too.
     Ditto for Witty.
     "I felt so strong on the last lap" of the 1,500, she said. "I think that's going to help me a lot for the 1,000. It definitely gives me more confidence going into my final race."
     It's more than a two-woman race. LeMay Doan, who won gold in the 500 but faded to 13th in the 1,500, should be a contender, along with German sprinters Franziska Schenk and Sabine Voelker.
     "I don't know who to think the top women are," Witty said, shaking her head. "It should be an exciting race."