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The winter in Helsinki has been uncommonly mild. Not since 1830, in fact, has the temperature stayed above freezing so continuously, and early last week the ice was more like ice cream. This was considered to be something of a national emergency since Finland was due to host the ladies' world speed-skating championships—and how in the name of Hans Brinker could the girls skate without ice? Less than a week before the championships the Kallio outdoor ice rink was a gravel field on which little boys played soccer.
By Thursday, when the U.S. team arrived, a thin sheet of ice had formed on the rink, but that was hardly enough. "We tried to work out," said Dianne Holum, the top American skater, "but we kept sinking." Later, in the lobby of the Olympia Hotel, Dianne was discussing the dismal conditions with her teammates—Anne Henning and Leah Poulos—when she caught a glimpse on TV of the Apollo 14 astronauts walking on the moon. "Now there's where they ought to hold the world championship next winter," said Dianne. "The conditions couldn't be any worse up there than they are here."
At 19 Holum found herself the matriarch of this year's U.S. team. Poulos also is 19, but she has been competing internationally only two years to Holum's five. And they both are downright venerable next to little Annie Henning—blonde, blue-eyed and 15. By comparison, the Netherlands, the defending world champions, sent a mother of three in her 30s, and the Soviet team included one veteran twice as old as Annie. The Europeans could only shake their heads and wonder why these crazy Americans persisted in sending little girls to do a woman's job.
The Russians arrived in a rather cocky mood. Their veteran skaters—Nina Statkevich, Ludmila Titova and Tatiana Sidorova—had finished 1-2-3 in the European championships the previous weekend at Leningrad. All the same, they couldn't help watching the American girls. They noticed that Holum looked bigger and stronger than ever, and they were especially interested in getting a look at Anne Henning. Last November, Annie had electrified the icy little world of speed skating by doing 500 meters in 43.7 seconds at Inzell in the German Alps, her time only a tick off the world record set by Sidorova at Russia's high-altitude camp in Alma-Ata.
For once the American team seemed ready. All three girls had trained in Europe for at least a month last fall. Henning's clocking in the 500 was the most tangible evidence of their improvement, but Holum also increased her strength and ability under the guidance of Dutch Coach Yan Vloedgraven. Moreover, they spent the two weeks before the world championships training in Oslo instead of flying over from the U.S. at the last minute. By the time they arrived in Helsinki the girls had adjusted themselves to the eight-hour time difference between Helsinki and their home town of North-brook, Ill. (where they are near both Coach Rudolph and the only refrigerated, Olympic-size rink in the western hemisphere).
When the Finns got their first look at the Americans, they were surprised. Oh, sure, they looked cute and sweet, as usual, but they were so very young—and much stronger than the Finns had expected. Two days before the meet Rudolph took the girls to a Finnish seamstress. The idea was to fit them with one-piece, nylon knit, navy blue skating suits. These were introduced by the Norwegian men last season and now they are the latest fashion—as well as a mechanical aid to faster times. The one-piece suits supposedly reduce wind resistance to a minimum, they eliminate suspenders and the skaters don't have to worry about the tops of two-piece suits riding up their backs. But when the American girls tried on the suits, they busted a lot of seams. "I had been told," grumbled a seamstress, "that they were skinny."
On Saturday, when the meet was to begin, the weather turned cold enough for the ice to harden, more or less. The Finns had worked on it around the clock, laying straw and praying for a freeze. But conditions still were far from ideal when it became time for the first race. The drab apartment buildings surrounding the rink failed to keep a strong wind from blowing across the area, and the ice, said Holum, was "pretty dirty." Part of the blame was awarded to reporters, who insisted on trudging back and forth across the skating surface with muddy boots. In some spots the ice was so thin that the underlying gravel threatened, to poke through. Holland's Atje Keulen-Deelstra, last year's overall world champion, slipped at almost every stroke, broke the edge of her blades shortly after the start in one race and finally quit in disgust.
Nevertheless, some 2,000 Finns paid $1.20 each to stand in that numbing Arctic wind and watch the girls sizzle around the rink. Unlike American ice skating, in which a group of skaters compete in the same race, international speed skating is raced in pairs, with the clock being each racer's real opponent. In two days there are four events: 500 meters, 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters and 3,000 meters. Traditionally, the Americans get wiped out at the longer distances by the stronger, more mature Dutch and Russians, but they usually manage to hold their own in the sprints. Before last weekend, and not counting the first championship way back in 1936, American women had won only one gold medal ever.
This year there were supposed to be 12 competing countries, but East Germany backed out at the last minute. So 11 nations sent women to Helsinki—or, more precisely, 10 nations sent women and you-know-who sent little girls clutching things like a stuffed Snoopy dog (Holum) and an old Christmas tree ornament (Henning) for luck. When the meet began, the Americans drew a good deal of attention. The girls had been on local TV and the newspapers had been full of stories about them—none of them understood by anyone from the U.S. because to them the Finnish language was about as decipherable as Magyar.