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Timmer (who?) sets world record

For Marianne Timmer, exhilarating disbelief. For Chris Witty, relief.

Timmer, ruining the expected showdown between Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann and Catriona LeMay Doan, set a stunning world record today in the women's 1,500, giving the Netherlands its third speed-skating gold medal of the Nagano Games.The Americans, shut out of any medals through the first six events at M-Wave, finally broke their drought when Witty captured a bronze, edging 1994 gold medalist Emese Hunyady for the final spot on the podium.

Niemann-Stirnemann was favored to win her second gold of the games but had to settle for silver instead, the third time she has fallen just short in the Olympic 1,500. The 31-year-old German now has two silvers and a bronze in this event, giving her seven medals overall in her glorious career.

Niemann-Stirnemann is just one short of tying the Olympic record for most medals by a female speed skater. East German Karin Enke-Kania captured eight between 1980 and 1988.

But that's a story for Friday, when Niemann-Stirnemann will be one of the favorites in the 5,000. Today belonged to Timmer and Witty.

Timmer, who didn't even win the sprint championship in her own country and fared poorly in the world sprint championships three weeks ago, started out ahead of LeMay Doan's world-record pace and never let up, her strides growing stronger and stronger as she whipped around the ice.

When the 23-year-old crossed the line in a time of 1 minute, 57.58 seconds, she gazed at the scoreboard in amazement. When the letters "WR" appeared beside her name, indicating she had eclipsed LeMay Doan's world record of 1:57.87, Timmer's eyes lit up in amazement. She didn't believe what she was seeing - the third world record in seven races at M-Wave.

"Who ever could have thought this," Timmer said. "Certainly not me."

On the backstretch, she collapsed in the arms of Dutch sprint coach Peter Mueller, both of them falling to the ice. Timmer gave the Netherlands another gold at M-Wave with the first Olympic victory by a Dutch woman since 1988.

The Americans, who have won more medals in speed skating than any other Winter Olympic sport, didn't seem likely to end their 0-for-Nagano today.

Witty, America's top female sprinter, finished a disappointing 10th in the 500 and her best chance for a medal was expected to be Thursday's 1,000. The 22-year-old native of West Allis, Wis., had admitted to being nervous in the Olympic spotlight, but she looked calm and collected as she glided around the oval.

Witty wasn't able to eclipse Timmer's stunning performance, but it was good enough for second when she crossed the line. A broad grin appeared on Witty's narrow face as she unzipped the hood to release her frizzy, strawberry-blonde hair. The time of 1:58.97 was nearly a second lower than her previous personal best.

But there were still three pairs to go. Next up was Hunyady and LeMay Doan, both of whom figured to have a chance to knock Witty out of a medal. Hunyady, of Austria, was 1,500 champion in Lillehammer, while the Canadian LeMay Doan came to Nagano as the world record holder and already had captured gold in the 500.

"I knew there were still a couple of good people to go," Witty said. "I was not sure my time would stand up. I thought I would end up in fourth or fifth."

LeMay Doan went out too fast, though, and faded badly on the final lap, finishing 13th at 2:02.19. Hunyady was much stronger but still wound up 0.22 behind Witty.

Neither skater in the next-to-last pairing came within a second of Witty, who could then relax. Her medal was assured because Canada's Cindy Overland dropped out of the final pair suffering from the flu.

Niemann-Stirnemann had to skate alone, too much of a task for even Gunda the Great. Without another skater to set the pace and give her some drafting help on the change-overs, she managed a gutsy 1:58.66 - more than a second behind Timmer but just ahead of Witty.

Witty wasn't the only American who fared well. Jennifer Rodriguez of Miami was eighth at 2:00.97, another strong performance for the former in-line skater who was fourth in the 3,000.

Becky Sundstrom of Glen Ellyn, Ill., was 12th at 2:01.81 and Moria D'Andrea of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., took 14th in 42:02.47.

- FREESTYLE SKIING: Amid the twisting and somersaulting in the aerials competition, there was a lot of nasty falling going on. America's top three contenders advanced to the finals, but two Australian medal favorites were eliminated in falls. World Cup leader Nikki Stone reached the women's final, while Britt Swartley and Eric Bergoust qualified for the men's medal round. Dmitri Dashchinsky of Belarus was the surprise leader after two jumps, followed by Swartley. The 12 qualifiers start from scratch in the finals, with the preliminary scores thrown out.

- CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING: Russia's Larissa Lazutina became the games' top medal winner, taking her fourth of the games with a gold in the women's 4x5-kilometer relay. Lazutina has three gold medals and a silver, while teammate Olga Danilova picked up her third medal. Norway won the silver and Italy the bronze.