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Shimizu's Gold-Winning Sprint Captivates Japan

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 1998; Page C4

 Shimizu Shows off Gold
 Japan's Hiroyasu Shimizu shows off his gold medal after winning the men's speedskating competition in the 500. (Michael Probst/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 10 — A brilliant burst of speed was followed by a flood of tears this afternoon, as Hiroyasu Shimizu set an Olympic record in the men's speedskating 500-meter race and captured both the heart of this nation and Japan's first individual Winter Olympic gold medal since 1972.

Dressed in a black-and-gold racing suit, Shimizu shot across the finish line in 35.59 seconds — breaking his Olympic record of 35.76, which he set in the first race on Monday — then threw his arms up into the air as tears cascaded down first his mother's face, then his own. Japan had never won a gold medal in speedskating before Shimizu, the world record holder in the 50, did so today in front of a jubilant home crowd that included Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako.

The Canadian team captured all the spots from second to fifth, as Jeremy Wotherspoon recovered from a difficult first day to capture the silver in a combined time of 71.84 and countryman Kevin Overland took the bronze in 71.86.

American Casey FitzRandolph, who finished the first day in third place, dropped to sixth with a disappointing race this afternoon. Skaters race once in the inner lane and once in the outer lane, with the best combined time winning.

"I am so happy to have my dream to be the Olympic champ in the 500 meters," said Shimizu, with the gold medal still hanging from his neck but the tears he shed on the ice long since dried on his cheeks. "My father in heaven is the first person I want to tell about my being Olympic champion."

Japan won its second gold on Wednesday (Tuesday EST) when freestyle skier Tae Satoya won the women's moguls.

Shimizu, 23, first laced up skates when he was a 3-year-old in Hokkaido. He eventually began to speedskate competitively under the direction of his coach and father, Hitoshi Shimizu, who died of cancer when his son was 17.

In a country where Midori Ito felt compelled to offer a public apology to her nation for failing to win the gold medal in women's figure skating in the 1992 Olympics, there was a palpable sense of expectation — and an inordinate amount of pressure — on speedskater Shimizu when he entered these Games as both the world record holder and clear favorite in this event.

Shimizu acknowledged today that his insides have been churning for a week because of that pressure, and said he felt its full force when his name was announced over the M-Wave public address system as part of the final pair of skaters today.

"When my name was called, there was big applause, and I was thinking that I felt this huge voice all expecting Hiroyasu Shimizu to win the race and win the gold medal," he said. "Of course, there was pressure for me that I had to meet those expectations."

By the time Shimizu made his final, successful run, the drama of the afternoon had built to a fever pitch. Wotherspoon made the first big move of the day when he finished his race in 35.80 seconds to vault from seventh place to first and into serious medal contention. And the disaster that befell the next pair — Erben Wennemars of the Netherlands (fifth after the first day) and Norway's Grunde Njos — brought the crowd to its feet with a gasp.

Coming out of the final turn, Njos lost his balance and fell sliding into the outside lane, connecting with Wennemars's right skate. Wennemars stumbled, then slammed into the outside wall, dislocating his shoulder. Sobbing in pain, he was carried from the ice on a stretcher and won't be able to compete in two other events.

The long delay caused by Wennemars's injury left the medal favorites — among them FitzRandolph, Overland and Shimizu — tensely waiting for the competition to resume. Two races after the accident, FitzRandolph went to the line for a nerve-racking start. He and Korean Kyu Hyuk Lee received one warning and one false start apiece, and by the time they lined up for their fourth attempt to race, FitzRandolph's stomach was in knots. He finished in 36.39, a big drop-off from the personal best of 35.81 he recorded on Monday and found himself temporarily — and perilously — in third place.

"I'm a little disappointed," said FitzRandolph, who admitted he was "shaking" when the race started. "Yesterday was a real high, I tried to keep an open mind going into today. I guess I have to be happy with sixth."

Overland skated in the next pair, and performed well enough to bump FitzRandolph out of third place. Then Shimizu went to the starting line for the day's final race.

"There was tremendous pressure, to be honest with you," he said. "I really wanted to win, so I raced to win."

And once he did win, he wept unashamedly. It was a display of raw emotion that made his countrymen cry along with him, the cavernous M-Wave suddenly transformed into something akin to a group hug.

"I want to express my deepest appreciation to all the people in Japan for supporting me," said Shimizu, who began his news conference with a long, emotional thank you encompassing too many people to name. "I truly am so happy."

So, too, were the Japanese, who celebrated in the streets of Nagano's Central Square and snapped up quickly printed extras of newspapers declaring Shimizu a national hero. Japanese television replayed the race dozens of times, complete with lengthy analyses. On the streets and in the stores of Tokyo, the talk was of virtually nothing but Shimizu and his gold medal.

In recent years, the Japanese have found only heartbreak at the Olympics. Ito lost to American Kristi Yamaguchi in Albertville in 1992. Masahiko Harada inexplicably collapsed on his final jump of the team ski jumping competition in Lillehammer in 1994, costing Japan what it thought was a sure gold.

Today, Shimizu woke fearing the agony that would come if he, too, disappointed his nation. He finished his day wrapped in a warm embrace.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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