Smit bursts onto scene with a speed skating silverPosted: Saturday February 23, 2002 7:36 PM
Updated: Saturday February 23, 2002 8:11 PM
The 26-year-old Dutchwoman, a marathon skater by trade who entered her country's Olympic trials "for the fun of it," made a stunning entrance into the top rank of her sport. Skating in the opening pairing (think of the play-in game in March Madness), Smit raced to a time of 6:49.22 that remained atop until the penultimate pairing. Only when race favorite Claudia Pechstein of Germany, with a sprinter's kick over the last 1,000 meters, finished in 6:46.91 did Smit lose the gold.
The silver medal surpassed even her wildest hopes. Smit is usually just getting warmed up at 5,000 meters; marathons are raced over 40 kilometers. "I never had an Olympic dream," Smit said. "I never expected to get any medals. I was just hoping to get high in the ranks. No medals at all."
Everyone in Section 126 knew who Smit was. Speed skating is a national passion in the Netherlands, and so many clusters of fans in the Oval were decked out in orange, the color worn by the Dutch, that any minute you expected to see Phil Fulmer run out onto the ice with the Tennessee Vols. In Section 126 sat a group of Dutch nationals, including Peter Gruen en boom, a member of Holland's Olympic committee. "She was totally unknown," he said of Smit. "She came out of the blue. This is unbelievable."
Other Dutch fans believed in Smit enough to give out to the befuddled Americans around them stickers big enough to go on bumpers, complete with Smit's picture and, in big black letters, the nickname SALT LAKE SMITTY.
The Olympic Oval has gained a reputation as a fast track. When Smit, in the first of the eight pairings, cut more than three seconds off the world record that Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann set on this ice last March, it looked as if there would be several world records set Saturday. After all, Smit is a newcomer to this distance and had finished 11th in the 3,000-meter race during the opening weekend. One skater after another not only fell behind Smit's pace, but didn't finish within 100 meters of her time. When the Zamboni came out after the first four pairings, only one other skater, Varvara Barysheva of Russia, had finished under seven minutes. During the intermission, Smit walked up to Section 126, hugged her supporters, signed a few autographs, than returned to the floor of the Oval.
Hopes began to rise among the Dutch fans, especially as Pechstein's splits fell farther and farther behind those of Smit. But Pechstein is known for her finishes, and over the last 800 meters she made up nearly five seconds. As she crossed the finish line, nearly the entire crowd at the Oval erupted in cheers at the world record. The Dutch contingent in Section 126 stood stunned, quiet, hand-to-cheek in disappointment. Only Smit was not disappointed. "I am very happy with my time and very surprised with my time," she said.
As the Games come to a close, with the Russians disputing everything but the direction of the setting sun, Smit couldn't have picked a better time to deliver the race she skated Saturday. We have to suffer through arguments, politics and national pride to enjoy a Gretha Smit and remind us that the Olympics are worth it after all.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Ivan Maisel is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.