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Dutch Win 1,500-Meter Race; U.S. Gets Bronze

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page C1

 American Christine Witty takes home a bronze medal. (AP Photo)
NAGANO, Feb. 16 — The coach of Netherlands speedskater Marianne Timmer grew so excited about her world record in the women's 1,500 meters today, he bounded out to the ice and, in an attempt to lift or embrace Timmer, ended up tackling her. She didn't seem to mind the thud to the ice.

Timmer wore a look of incredulity from the moment she glanced up to the scoreboard for the result: 1 minute 57.58 seconds, which was 2.5 seconds faster than her personal best in the 1,500 and .29 better than the world mark. The disbelief remained even after she jumped up on the podium at M-Wave to collect her Olympic gold medal along with silver medalist Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann of Germany and bronze medal winner Chris Witty, who won the first speedskating medal for the United States in these Olympics.

"When I first saw my time, I couldn't believe it," Timmer said. "I had to look 10 times to really believe it."

Said Canadian speedskater Kevin Overland, who won the bronze in the men's 500 meters last week: "I think you all saw the expression of 'wow' on her face."

For 15 months, Overland and Timmer have been dating, and he provided a second embrace for Timmer — considerably softer than the one she received from the Netherlands's coach, Peter Mueller. About the knockdown, Mueller said, "That was one of my old football moves."

Timmer, 23, entered the race hoping to finish anywhere from third to sixth place. She had never won a 1,500-meter race and didn't figure to break the trend in the Olympic Games.

"Clearly, there was only one possible reaction: 'Wow,' " Niemann-Stirnemann said. "It was a crazy time, an amazing time, a fantastic time. ... I didn't expect her to win the gold medal."

While Niemann-Stirnemann couldn't top the mark, the former world-record holder, Catriona LeMay Doan of Canada, couldn't even crack the top 10. She started out too fast and faded to a 13th-place finish. Another favorite, Austria's Emese Hunyady, was paired with LeMay Doan and finished fourth.

Like Timmer, Witty expressed surprise after her performance in an event that is not her best. Witty considers the 1,000 meters, which will be contested Thursday, her race. She began competing in the 1,500 this year only to improve her times in the 1,000. Miami's Jennifer Rodriguez offered another noteworthy effort in only her 14th month of speedskating, finishing eighth here to go with her fourth-place standing in the 3,000 meters last week.

Witty's medal was nevertheless long awaited. The U.S. speedskaters had gone 0 for 6 in the events contested here so far at M-Wave. The Americans have won at least one speedskating medal in every Winter Olympics except 1956's and 1984's.

"I think some Americans are a little hard on us," Witty said. "Especially after Dan [Jansen] and Bonnie [Blair] are gone. They didn't think there would be any medals this year. There is a face lift for the sport. New, young faces, new technology. Now, there is not just Dan or Bonnie, there are five or six good people here."

Like many of the Americans, Timmer is new to the Olympic Games. She was raised on her parents' small sheep farm in Sappemeer, Netherlands, and she lists taking care of the sheep as one of her hobbies. Her parents sat in the stands with Overland, waiting as 11 skaters competed after Timmer. They feared her time would not hold up.

"It took a few years off their lives to have to watch the rest of the races," Overland said. "But I reassured them that nobody had that kind of speed today."

Overland actually had expected to be rooting for two athletes today, but his sister, Cindy, dropped out of the race because of flu.

"I started the Olympics off with the bronze medal," Overland said. "I think it rubbed off on" Timmer.

Timmer was first in the 1997 world championships in the 1,000 meters, making her a strong favorite Thursday in that event.

"Now, I have a really good feeling about the 1,000," she said. "And I go for it, too."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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