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    Friday, February 6, 1998

    Canadians applaud clap skates

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- What's all the fuss about clap skates?
     Don't ask the Canadian speedskaters.
     While Americans complain about the sport's biggest technological change this century, the Canadians are smiling.
     "Our whole team expects to do the best that any Canadian team has ever done," said Jeremy Wotherspoon, the world-record holder in the men's 1,000 meters.
     And why not?
     Wotherspoon and Patrick Bouchard lead a Canadian team that includes five of the top 10 performers this season in the men's 500 and 1,000 meters.
     The women are led by Catriona LeMay-Doan, who holds the world record in the 500 and 1,500 meters, and Susan Auch, the 500 silver medalist behind Bonnie Blair at the 1994 Olympics.
     That was Canada's only speedskating medal since Gaetan Boucher won two golds and a bronze at Sarajevo in 1984. In fact, Canada has won a mere 12 speedskating medals in Olympic history, compared with 47 for the United States.
     The turnaround appears to stem from the clap skates. The blade is hinged at the toe, allowing the full runner to stay in contact with the ice longer. That increases force on the track -- and sharply decreases the time on the clock.
     In November, LeMay-Doan became the first woman to break the 38-second mark in the 500. She set the world record of 37.90 in Calgary, set it again the next day and broke it twice more the same weekend in December.
     Two weeks ago, she won the World Speedskating Championships in Berlin. Not bad for someone who finished 19th in the 500 at the 1994 Winter Olympics.
     Still, she and Auch bristle at the notion that the clap skate is the sole reason for their success.
     "Everybody is on them. Everybody is going faster," LeMay-Doan said. "If we all got off them and went on traditional skates, I guarantee you the results would still be the same."
     American Chris Witty, the 1996 World Spring champion and perhaps the best U.S. hope for a speedskating medal, isn't so sure.
     "Catriona has been there, but not where she is now," Witty said Friday. "If we had normal skates on, I would have considered her a medal contender -- but not a half-second ahead of everyone else."
     The Dutch and German traditionally are strong in speedskating, and the clap skates have only enhanced their lot. Some Americans have blamed a late start in getting the clap skates for being slow to catch up.
     Witty, who holds the world record in the 1,000 meters and won that event at the World Speedskating Championship in Berlin, is one of the few Americans who have been successful on both skates.
     But Canada didn't make the change until last summer, when the team went to Milwaukee to test out the Viking-brand skate. Instead of going through one skate after another until finding a pair that felt comfortable, the team stuck with it for better or worse.
     "We realized that at the end of the season we had no choice but to get on them because they were faster," LeMay-Doan said. "We made them work for us."
     "I don't know if we've adjusted better," Wotherspoon said. "We just took a different approach. We got on them as soon as we could, and we just thought about skating and not about new skates."
     Dianne Holum, a four-time medalist for the United States who now coaches her daughter, Kirstin, also noticed the rapid ascent of the Canadians -- as well as the absence of perennial champions in the wake of the clap skates.
     Traditional skates require skaters to push from side to side. With the claps, there is greater emphasis on pushing back at the end of the stride to keep the blade on the ice longer.
     "A technique that didn't work for traditional skates was like 'Boom!' for the clap skates," Holum said. "Some people were made for that. Bonnie Blair couldn't compete on a traditional skate with them. You have to have the clap, and then you have to use it right."