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Records fall fast at new Kearns oval

'Fast ice' bodes well for next year's Olympics

The numbers say it all.

By the time the world single-distance championships ended Sunday afternoon, the new Olympic speedskating oval in Kearns had logged an incredible five world records to go along with 11 championship records and 57 national records. All in three short days.

Among the 140 skaters from 20 different countries, 127 personal bests had been set.

The Kearns oval showed it is more than just an interesting new venue for the 2002 Winter Olympics. In one weekend, it became an instant giant in the world of speedskating — a sport that keeps records dating back to Feb. 3, 1890, when Norway's Oskar Fredriksen was first clocked doing the 5,000 meters in 9 minutes, 19.8 seconds.

By the way, even the worst skater this weekend did more than two and a half minutes better than that.

Records are nice. But when enough of them fall, eyebrows go up.

Is the new oval too fast? Have Utahns loaded the dice? Does the altitude (at 4,675 feet, it is the highest in the world) and the dry air make this such an exceptional facility that its records, like home runs at Denver's Coors Field, ought to be considered suspect, or at least have an asterisk next to them?

The answer to that question, by current and former skaters alike, is a resounding no.

"I don't think it matters," said Canada's Jeremy Wotherspoon, whose time of 1 minute, 8.28 seconds on Sunday set a new world record in the 1,000 meters. "People set records at sea level, too. The best skaters in the world are here. It's legitimate."

But while it is true that one sea-level record — set in the grueling men's 10,000 meters in The Netherlands last November — survived the weekend, a growing list of the world's speedskating standards have been set at the two highest venues in the world, in Utah and in Calgary.

And even in the 10,000 meters, the results were impressive. Prior to Sunday, only one man ever had skated that distance in under 13 minutes 20 seconds. Now, seven have.

Bonnie Blair, a five-time Olympic gold medalist who watched the competition at the Kearns oval with interest, said people who wanted to could attach an asterisk to "just about anything." But she doesn't think that is necessary. The biggest difference, she said, lies in whether the oval has a roof over it.

"The talk in speedskating circles now is that they may want to distinguish between indoor and outdoor records." Because of wind and weather, virtually no world records are set any more outdoors.

But even that doesn't seem to be under serious consideration.

Wotherspoon's mark in the 1,000 meters was the highlight of competition Sunday, coming in a tight pairing against Norway's Adne Sondral, who won the silver medal by finishing 22 hundredths of a second behind.

Holland's Carl Verheijen ran away with the men's 10,000 meters, posting a time of 13 minutes, 12.49 seconds, 1.32 seconds better than the second-place finisher, fellow Dutch skater Bob De Jong. That brought cheers and celebration from the sizable contingent of fans who traveled from The Netherlands, including the national band, Kleintje Pils. The collection of brass instruments and drums entertained fans during all three days of competition and, at last, played the Dutch national anthem during the final medals ceremony.

Germany's Anni Friesinger won the day's other race, the women's 1,500 meters, with a time of 1 minute 54.58. That was two tenths of a second slower than her own world record pace, set last week in Calgary.

Friesinger said she felt a bit tired. The world single distance championship is the final event of the long speedskating season, during which skaters travel extensively with little rest.

"It's a long season. I'm getting a little more tired from day to day," she said, adding that she was extremely pleased with winning the gold. "I'm so happy I don't find the exact words to express it," she said in broken English.

A lot of German women left Utah happy this weekend. They won the gold in four of five events, and added four silvers and a bronze to win the overall medal count. The Netherlands finished second with six total medals, followed by Canada with five. The United States earned one silver and one bronze medal in men's competition; none in the women's races.

The Americans hope to improve on that record now that they have 11 months to practice on the ice that will host the Olympic Games. Despite all the talk about high altitude and dry air, they know Olympic gold medals are won by skating faster than anybody else on the ice that day, regardless of whether any records are set.

Or, as U.S. national sprint coach Mike Crowe put it, "It's the same 400-meter track," no matter where it happens to be.