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'Gunda' Leads Germans to Sweep of 3,000 Meters

By Paul Newberry
Associated Press
Wednesday, February 11, 1998; 4:02 a.m. EST

NAGANO, Japan — This time, Gunda didn't fall. This time, she led her country to an Olympic sweep.

Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann of Germany, one of the most dominant all-around speedskaters of the past decade, redeemed herself for a disappointing performance in Lillehammer four years ago by winning gold today in the 3,000 meters.

Niemann-Stirnemann beat her German teammate and top rival, Claudia Pechstein, with an Olympic record time of 4:07.29, just 0.16 off Pechstein's world record. Pechstein claimed the silver in 4:08.47 and a third German, Anna Friesinger, made it a 1-2-3 sweep with a bronze-winning time of 4:09.44.

While German dominance in women's speedskating is routine, no one would have anticipated that their closest rival would be a native of south Florida.

Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami, a former in-line champion who switched to ice just two years ago at the urging of her boyfriend, fellow U.S. speedskater KC Boutiette, was fourth with a time of 4:11.94. That was almost four seconds faster than her previous best, making her the first of four skaters to eclipse the Olympic record of 4:11.94 held since 1988 by Yvonne van Gennip of the Netherlands.

Rodriguez's post-race lap was almost as animated as the one taken by the German medal-winners, as she exchanged high-fives with coach Gerard Kemkers and saluted the small American contingent at M-Wave. Rodriguez sees these Olympics as a stepping stone for Salt Lake City; if this keeps up, a Floridian might eventually wind up on the medal stand in the Winter Olympics.

Rodriguez's performance stole the limelight from America's best distance skater, 17-year-old Kirstin Holum of Waukesha, Wis., who gained attention for her announcement at the U.S. trials that she will leave the sport after this season to pursue an art career.

The daughter of four-time Olympic medalist Dianne Holum skated in the same heat with Niemann-Stirnemann but was quickly left behind by the powerful, 31-year-old German. The teen-ager struggled across the line in 4:12.24, a personal best but good enough only for sixth place.

But it's no shame to trail Niemann-Stirnemann, who began her Olympic career with the powerful East German team in Calgary a decade ago. She has been the world all-around champion six times, the European title-holder seven times.

After winning two golds and a silver at the 1992 Albertville Games, Niemann-Stirnemann was expected to win three golds at Lillehammer. Instead, she managed only a silver and bronze and fell in the 3,000, a race she had not lost in three years.

In a scene that drew comparisons to Dan Jansen — who was at today's race as a television commentator — Niemann-Stirnemann's skate clipped a lane marker just 450 meters into the event and she tumbled to the ice.

``It's part of my history and it made me cry a lot,'' she said prior to these Olympics.

Now, her only tears are joyous. The memory of her fall was finally exorcised when she climbed onto the top step of the medal podium again. With a big grin on her face and her arms raised in the arm, she began jumping up and down like a delighted child.

The crowd at M-Wave was more subdued than on Tuesday, when Japan's Hiroyasu Shimizu sent his country into a frenzy by winning the men's 500-meter race. And it was a letdown that another world record remained on the books, especially with a strong field that included four Olympic gold medalists.

But many of the big names struggled. For instance, Russia's Svetlana Bazhanova, the gold medalist in 1994 when Niemann-Stiremann fell, finished 10th.

The other American in the race, Catherine Raney of Elm Grove, Wis., was 22nd.

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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