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Van Velde sets world record; Cheek bronze

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Saturday, February 16, 2002
All three medalists broke previous world record

By Tim Keown
ESPN The Magazine

KEARNS, Utah -- Each winter sport has its own language, and if you're not into speedskating you find yourself sitting in glazed stupefaction as the skaters rattle off the lingo of gear and turns and times.

There is a common currency, however: Speed.

Damn, these guys are fast.

Any world record in speedskating set before the Salt Lake Olympics might as well be written in cuneiform. There are technical reasons for this -- the 4,675-foot elevation of the Olympic Oval produces several chemical and atmospheric realities.

Less oxygen in the air makes the ice freeze faster, thereby creating a denser surface with fewer bubbles.

The high altitude allows skates to melt the water faster, also, which creates something of a hydroplane effect, which is a good thing.

Thankfully, you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate what's going on.

There have been five races here in beautiful downtown Kearns (think Lodi, only without the glitz), and three of them have produced world records. And two of those three have produced world records that were broken more than once.

A week ago American Derek Parra held the world record in the 5,000 meters for all of 27 minutes.

The latest record came Saturday afternoon in the 1,000, when Gerard van Velde of the Netherlands knocked more than half a second off the previous mark, which was also set in this building.

The other medalists, silver-winner Jan Bos of the Netherlands and surprise Joey Cheek of the United States, also skated under the previous record.

(Holland, it is safe to say, does not have a speedskating oval at 4,675 feet, unless it has some awfully long legs.)

When you have to break the world record just to assure yourself of a medal, it's a pretty tough competition.

"It's incredible, and I don't have any words for it," van Velde said. "When I saw my time (1:07.18), I knew it would be hard to beat."

The one who was expected to beat it, Canada's Jeremy Wotherspoon, completed a disappointing showing in these Games with a 13th-place finish. The world sprint champion, who fell in the 500, skated last, had a lengthy hand-touch (not the clinical term, probably) on the final lap and essentially bonked over the final 200 meters.

When Wotherspoon's time flashed on the screen Cheek earned an unexpected trip to the medal stand.

"As I was watching the final pairs, I almost didn't let myself think about it," Cheek said. "I didn't think it was going to hold up. I still can't believe it. I won a medal. Wow."

It doesn't sound right to call it an upset when two Dutch skaters finish 1-2, but Wotherspoon and American Casey FitzRandolph didn't hold up their end. FitzRandolph, the winner in the 500, admitted it was a little harder to get worked up for the 1,000 with a gold already in his pocket. He finished seventh, the lowest of four Americans.

"The first couple of days after the 500, I was fried," he said. "I didn't think I would ever come around for this one. But then I got my mind back into it and was ready. My body probably could have used another couple of days.

"But when the guy who's the best in the world (Wotherspoon) finishes 13th, that tells you something about the competition," FitzRandolph said. "I don't know of many other sports that have 13 potential gold medalists."

Tim Keown writes for ESPN The Magazine.