Gregarious Gianni Romme, a double champion in Nagano and a hero in the speed skating-mad Netherlands, is ready for another golden go-round
By Brian Cazeneuve
Gianni Romme doesn't unwind peacefully. A full hour after the world's most dominant distance skater completes a draining 5,000-meter race in front of a cheering, flag-waving home crowd at a World Cup event last month in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, Romme is still accelerating. In a press room in the Thialf oval, Romme chats, taps tables and twirls unattended pens. At times he seems to be shivering. He asks you the time. He asks you who made your watch. He tells you he has one just like it, except for the color, style and manufacturer. He likes to find common ground with people and usually does. Most of all, he likes to be moving.
His wife, Marielle van Scheppingen, a top Dutch cyclist, knows the signs. "When he is happy," she says, "he is moving with hands and feet all around and talking, maybe to me, maybe just talking. A bad day, he sits like this." Van Scheppingen poses in an exaggerated slump. Like others in Thialf on this day, van Scheppingen wants to know if this is a bad day -- that is, does her husband view his second-place showing in the 5,000 (14 seconds off his world-record 6:18.72) as a comeback race or another setback? At his previous meet, the Dutch Olympic trials in December, Romme, 28, had finished fifth in the 5,000, qualifying for these Games only in the 10,000. (He competes today at noon.) This was almost unthinkable considering that Romme won the 5,000 and the 10,000 in Nagano, was the world all-around champion in 2000 and had won nine of his last 10 World Cup races at 5,000 meters. Until the trials Romme's repeating his Olympic triumphs seemed as predictable as winter snow. Now van Scheppingen watches Romme, seated with his back to her, speaking to friends. As she watches, her husband begins bouncing his legs up and down. "Look, look!" she says. "Oh, it is O.K. Dinner will be a good time tonight."
Anytime Romme talks is a good time. Ask him how van Scheppingen, whom he met at a speed skating camp nine years ago, influences him, and he replies, "When I do bad, she tells me, 'You skate like a dumb-ass,' and I thank her." Romme's coach, Peter Mueller, sees Romme's gregarious nature as "a way to protect himself. He likes to be around people. He likes action."
Romme excels when playing the underdog, a bit of a trick when you're the best in the world at something. He learned that in his hometown of Made (MAH-deh), in the south of Holland, a region of the country better known for cycling. The boy lacked coordination but never drive. "When I was 11, I put on my dad's skates and I went out and right away there was a corner and I went straight into a tree," he says. "I felt a bit sore, O.K., but I felt for the first time what it was to make speed on the ice. So I thought then I go again and, O.K., maybe next time the tree moves." Romme qualified for a district team at 16, an age when, he says, his form resembled a fish swimming on sand. He won some local cycling races and used the prize money to support his skating ambitions. He also worked eight hours a day, beginning at 6 a.m., watering and trimming plants in a greenhouse, and also taught swimming. At his first major international race in Davos, Switzerland, Romme (who was 20 and had yet to qualify for the national team) hoped to impress the Dutch coaches. "I so nervous I try to move like this," he says, showing off his best fish flap. "I move all but my legs. After four laps I blow up. Just brrrooosh, like that."
To compensate for limited talent, Romme trained relentlessly. When he figured hopping drills on one leg with a sandbag on his back weren't taxing enough, he replaced the sandbag with his father, Toon, a speed skating instructor. "I like cycling uphill in the mountains," Romme says. "From the foot of the mountain you look up and you know mountain wants to hurt you. You fight the mountain. It's a nice view to look down at the mountain and say, 'I beat you.'" To get ready for Salt Lake, Romme toiled for three weeks last summer on the volcanic landscape of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. In a typical workout he leaps the steps of an empty stadium, feet parallel, back hunched, three steps at a time, up and down each aisle, going around the stadium.
In 1996 Romme's skating crouch was so exaggerated that he began to have circulation problems in his upper legs and waist. Henk Gemser, his coach from 1995 to '98, adjusted his stride, lifting his back slightly, allowing Romme a longer glide with each stroke and enabling him to take fewer strides per straightaway. When most distance skaters were taking eight to 10, Romme could get by with six to eight. The extra power he generated compensated for his form, which was becoming less flawed by the year. In 1996 he won his first world title, taking the 10,000 meters in Hamar, Norway. At a World Cup event in Heerenveen in December '97 Romme -- by then wearing the new clap skates that would revolutionize the sport -- lowered the 5,000-meter world record held by Norway's Johann Koss by 4.33 seconds, to 6:30.63.
Romme entered the Nagano Games as a prohibitive favorite in both distance races. Before he skated the first, the 5,000, however, he watched Bart Veldkamp and then Rintje Ritsma surpass his world record, the latter dropping the mark to 6:28.24. "Before that race it was so strange," he says. "I was angry. I said, 'What are you doing with my world record? You skate for the second place.' It was the only time in my whole career I had that feeling." Without thinking of split times, Romme blazed through the first four laps well under world-record pace, his rhythm as relaxed and easy as if he were on a training stroll. Ritsma said later that he knew the mark was gone by the third kilometer. The final time, 6:22.20, stood as the world record until Romme broke it the following month in Calgary.
Nine days remained before the Olympic 10,000. When van Scheppingen, who had stayed behind in Holland, mentioned in a telephone interview that she had passed up the trip to save money, two Dutch companies provided a free airline ticket to send her to Nagano in time for Romme's second race and paid for her lodging while she was in Japan. Before the 10,000 Koss predicted that Romme could break his record in that race, 13:30.55, "with one leg." Romme used both legs, but he indeed blew away the record -- by 15 seconds -- leading the Dutch to a sweep of the medals. (Today Romme's record stands at 13:03.40.)
He returned home and stood on a platform before 40,000 people in his hometown of 15,000. In the country where some say the atmosphere is four parts nitrogen, one part oxygen and three parts speed skating, Romme opened stores, signed the bare backs of fans who lined up outdoors in the Dutch winter to see him and even visited Queen Beatrix at her palace in the Hague -- where he was delighted to discover a royal fondness for bitterballen, or "bitter balls," the little meat-and-dough treats beloved by the Dutch common man. "She served them," Romme says, "and I thought, O.K., the Queen eats bitter balls. She's all right." Romme also played spectator at his parents' frequent masters' competitions around the country. A typical day of cross-training for his mother, Dymphy, a world silver medalist in the 50-55 age group, entails a milelong swim in the morning, a 35-mile bike ride in the afternoon and in the evening some in-line skating with Toon.
Romme also became a proud 32 handicapper on the golf course, where, he confesses, "sometimes the club flies farther than the ball." His most decadent post-Olympic purchase was a television with a six-foot-by-10-foot screen for his living room, where he has watched his favorite movie, The Big Lebowski, at least 50 times. How much does he like the bowling-centric Coen brothers film? Romme has dubbed his coach the Dude, in recognition of Mueller's resemblance to the Jeff Bridges character in the film. Mueller, in turn, labeled Romme Double Dude in honor of the two gold medals.
In early 1999 Romme joined forces with Mueller, the U.S.-born coach who had worked with Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen. Romme incorporated Mueller's expertise as a sprint coach, rapidly improving his speed and his cornering technique. He also identified with Mueller's sometimes impulsive approach to life, though two episodes temporarily strained the relationship. Spaar Select, a financial company, had long sponsored Mueller's team. In June 2000, however, three months after Romme won the world all-around championship, Mueller began negotiating with another financial company, DSB, about his squad's signing on with it. Mueller leveraged those talks to double his team's deal with Spaar Select. "I was happy with Spaar Select," says Romme, whose income eclipsed the million-dollar mark after the new contract. "What Pete did helped us, but I didn't like [how it came about]."
Then early last year Mueller began dating Dutch speed skater Marianne Timmer, whom he had coached to two gold medals in Nagano but who was now a member of a rival club. In August 2001 Mueller, 47, and Timmer, 27, wed secretly in Las Vegas. Mueller only told Romme about the marriage when the team assembled the following month and then said that he wanted Timmer to join his team. Romme, who had met Timmer when both were on the national team but admits he didn't know her well, was quoted in the Dutch monthly Sport International as saying, "Marianne with the team could be a danger" to the chemistry of the group. Though he acknowledges the remarks, Romme says, "I was talking from what I'd heard, not what I knew. I know her [better] now and I like her. She is a good friend, good teammate."
All seemed fine this year for Romme until the Dutch trials. He admits he might have neglected his speed work a few weeks before the competition, while Mueller was at a separate camp with the team's sprinters. In retrospect, however, Romme thinks the real reason for his poor showing was that the season was simply too easy for him. He wasn't challenged enough, scared enough, frenzied enough to face the mountain and skate fast. At Utah Olympic Oval today that shouldn't be a problem, as he sets out to climb the most challenging peak of his career. No matter how fast he gets there, it will be a blast to listen to him on the way back down.