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The Flying Dutchman
Clive Gammon
January 27, 1988
Leo Visser of the Netherlands has a score to settle with a pesky Norwegian rival as he chases Olympic gold
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January 27, 1988

The Flying Dutchman

Leo Visser of the Netherlands has a score to settle with a pesky Norwegian rival as he chases Olympic gold

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"So, the bar-disco part of my life is over," he says. "When I am 19, I make the junior national team, though I have not had so much training."

Visser progressed rapidly. "After only one winter on the junior team, he tried out for the national squad," says Holland's national coach, Henk Gemser. "It must have been the fastest anybody ever made it to the top in skating. I put him into the 1986 world championships at Inzell [West Germany]. I told him. 'Don't think about it. Just go in the competition. Just do what you can.' But he finished in eighth place! In the worlds!

"I was very excited. I knew I had found a great skater. It is not that his technique is so special. It is his fighting character that is his strong suit. And his endurance."

For a time, however, it seemed as if the promise Visser had shown at Inzell might have been just a flash of sun on the ice. Young Dutchmen are subject to a military draft, and from March 1986 to the beginning of the skating season in October, a time when Visser should have been preparing for his first winter of World Cup racing, he was stomping on the parade grounds at boot camp in Nijmegen and later standing guard at the military airport at Soesterberg. Then in October he came down with the flu as he tried to work his way back into form.

When he recovered he tried to make up for lost time and, predictably, he overtrained and lost confidence. Suddenly, he found he couldn't take curves at high speed. It took a friendship to snap this string of evil luck. Visser recalls how Jan Van Ykema, himself a candidate for a place on the Dutch national team, took him in hand. "He pulled me along with him for 200 meters, then straightened out to let me get inside and by him," Visser says. "And afterward he said. 'See? You can hit those curves fine.' It is wonderful to be able to look back on such friendship."

And so, last winter the assurance and the world-class times returned—and then came the flowers on the ice at Heerenveen. (Visser actually broke two world records that weekend: Besides the 5,000, he skated the 10,000 in 14:11.63, .51 under the mark held by Karlstad, but the Norwegian reclaimed it 14 minutes later with his 14:03.92.)

Over the summer, Visser kept his legs in shape by various methods, though not cycling—a traditional dryland exercise for speed skaters. "Too dangerous," he says. "Who wants to break a collarbone just ahead of an Olympic season? In summer I sprint, I walk, I roller-skate. We don't use regular roller skates with two pairs of wheels, but heavy ones with four wheels in line. The effect is of heavy ice skates."

Like a skateboard? Visser is shocked. "Ne, ne, ne!" he says, reverting to Dutch. "Very dangerous! Also not compatible with skating. You are using your legs for balance only in skateboarding. Your shoulders do that for you on ice."

Visser loves to talk about the technical aspects of skating. "Look at these skates." he says, holding up a pair of speedskates. "The irons are half as long again as a hockey or a figure skate. The shoe is also much different. It is from soft leather, just stiffened in places. We need more feeling in the shoe, for balance, because of the long irons. With hockey you skate with a quick movement. But we racers have to stay much longer on one foot."

Though he lost his world record at Calgary's indoor oval, Visser is clearly looking forward to skating there in the Olympics. He expects to be ready, and he figures the conditions will be right. "Perfection of ice for speed skating comes only at precise temperatures," he says with relish. "To be perfect, the underlevel of the ice must be around minus 11 [12° F] and the upper at minus three or minus two [26°-28° F]. If the ice is too cold, it's too hard, not wet enough to glide on well. If the ice is too warm, you have too much water. But indoors you can make it what you want."

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