Falko Zandstra, Holland's world champion speed skater, will tick off his fastest results at the slightest invitation. There was that time he went 280. There was that 255 and—ho hum—that 245. You have to listen carefully to understand that he's talking kilometers per hour here, and that the clockings came not in skating competition, but on the open road in a Porsche, a Ferrari, an Audi. "I was too fast for the police," says Zandstra, who could win three medals in Lillehammer. "They could stop me only when I was going 160."
The 22-ycar-old Zandstra, raised in the northern province of Friesland, grew up so close to the ice hall in the town of Heerenveen that he could see its entrance from his living-room window. He began to author his own legend even as a teenager. While the 1993 European speed skating championships were taking place in Heerenveen, Zandstra suddenly disappeared after winning the 500 meters. People looked everywhere for him, to no avail. It seems Zandstra had gone down to a local garage, where his car was being fitted with a new sound system; he wanted to check on the mechanic's progress. Then he went home to relieve himself—"I trust the toilets in the arena, but I'm more comfortable at home"—and to catch the championships on TV. When he saw that his next event was coming up, Zandstra sauntered across the street to enter and finish second in the 5,000 meters. Over the next two days he would also win the 1,500 and the 10,000. Suddenly he was a celebrity. "There were so many autograph requests, I got footprints on my jeans," he says. "I know now how hard it is to be famous."
Like so many of the best speed skaters, Zandstra is rangy. But his 6'3" frame carries only 165 pounds, so one wonders how he habitually beats out rivals who have thighs twice the circumference of his own. He has a theory: His legs don't flare out quite so much with each blade stroke, so he can thus better hew to a straight line. "I also did three years of short track, so I take curves pretty good," he says. Then he shrugs, "You win by going straight and by being good in the turns."
Zandstra took the straightaways quickly enough and the turns tightly enough to pick up a silver medal in the 5,000 meters in Albertville. Last season at the World Speedskating Championships he became world champion in the all-around competition—a composite of the 500, 1,500,5,000 and 10,000 meters—at the Vikingskipet skating arena in Hamar, which will serve as the Olympic track. Zandstra is expected to race the three longest of those distances in Lillehammer, where his most formidable opponent in each event will be one of the hosts, Norway's Johan Olav Koss, who placed second in the all-around at the '93 worlds.
February 7, 1994
Rintje Ritsma, another Dutchman, will be nearly as formidable as Koss in the same three races. But because Ritsma is Zandstra's teammate and soul mate, their rivalry is an unusual one. Together they totaled a BMW M3 on a test track by taking a curve too fast. And once the competition had ended in Albertville, Zandstra and Ritsma decided they would ski together, despite the minor detail that neither of them had ever skied before in his life. Within a day they were on the most difficult trails they could find. "All you do is hear zwooooosh" says Zandstra, recalling that adventure fondly. "Speed, speed and more speed. That's life.