Last valentine's day, at the thialf indoor stadium in Heerenveen, the Netherlands, red roses, yellow daffodils and multihued tulips came showering down on the ice for a young man with whom the whole nation seemed to have fallen in love. The bouquets were thrown by a sellout crowd of 16,000 that had paid $20 a head to watch the World Speed Skating Championships. The cheering spectators had just witnessed their countryman, 21-year-old Leo Visser, clock 6:47.01 in the 5,000-meter race, breaking by more than two seconds the world record set by Viktor Shasherin of the Soviet Union in 1984.
They are mad about speed skating in the Netherlands. There are 14 million Dutch, and though it had been a fine Saturday afternoon, 3½ million of them had stayed indoors to watch the championships on TV At the Thialf oval, as Visser went for the record, a big drum banged out the rhythm of his stride as the fans roared. "Le-o! Le-o!"
"In the last few laps it hurt my ears," Visser said later. "They told me the crowd noise hit 120 decibels, which is more than a yet."
"You know, a yet fighter plane," said Visser.
Weeks after the championships, flowers and cards—50 or 60 a day—were still arriving at Visser's home in Haastrecht (pop. 4,450). But soon after the start of the current World Cup season, the cheering abruptly stopped. Early in December at Calgary's new indoor oval, the site of the Olympic competition, Visser's archrival, Geir Karlstad of Norway, broke Visser's world record in the 5,000 (6:43.59) and his own record in the 10,000 (improving it from 14:03.92 to 13:48.51). The young Dutchman placed third in the former event and fifth in the latter, a whopping 27 seconds behind the Norwegian. Leo, wasn't that, well, just a little disheartening?
Visser turned on the patient look that he employs when he has to explain the subtleties of his sport to a layman. "This is something they don't understand, even in Holland," he said with a sigh. "O.K., Karlstad sets two world records. I tried for the 10,000 record [in Calgary] also, but at seven kilometers I realized my lap times were too high, so I coasted after that. Those 27 seconds were not as bad as they sound because I made a technical decision. I eased back. I didn't have the legs that day to take the record.
"But my legs will be better than Karlstad's legs by the Olympics. That is because he works at a steady level right through the season. We Dutch work to a plan; we save ourselves for the real hard work after the New Year. We are timing our efforts to peak at the Olympics. And it is in the Olympics that I will beat Karlstad. And maybe take my record back also."
Holland is a tiny country. Drive out of Amsterdam on National Route 11, keep the Heineken brewery on your right, and you will arrive in Haastrecht in about half an hour. Anybody can direct you to the Visser home. There's probably only one other address in town that's better known—that of Hein Vergeer, the world speed skating champion in 1985 and 1986. Vergeer, 26, had a lot to do with the making of Leo Visser. "We practice together," says Visser. "We know each other very well. He's a great friend."
Visser began competing in junior 100-and 500-meter sprints at 10, but he didn't get serious about skating until he was 18. As he says, "When you stay up until 2 a.m. Friday nights discoing and drinking beer and then try to get up at 6:30 in the morning to train, well, you don't get very far." The turning point came almost accidentally, when Visser was the first in his peer group to pass the driver's test. Whereupon, Dutch drink-and-drive laws being fierce, he was conscripted as the nondrinking driver for the rest of the gang. He took out his frustrations at skating practice.