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Europe

Ice, Ice, Baby

Figure skaters may be the ice princesses of the Winter Olympics, but the reigning queens are the speed skaters. And Germany rules the rink.

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Germany's speed skater Anni Friesinger is a favorite for the 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

German women are set to melt ice in Salt Lake City. Their speed and strength in the sprint and long distance events makes them the envy of all other national teams. Even the Dutch and the Americans are worried about the German dominance.

And they have every reason to shake in their boots. With the reigning speed champions Claudia Pechstein, Anna Friesinger and Sabine Völker, not many other women will find a spot on the winner’s podium.

Going for gold

Claudia Pechstein has lined up on the starting line for six Olympic teams. She’s won a total of five medals, 2 golds, 1 silver and 2 bronzes since competing for the unified German team in the early 1990s.

As a young East German "wunderkind" Pechstein virtually grew up on the ice. At just four years of age, she teetered out on to the ice. First she laced up figure skates, but then she switched to the fast track and began raking in the victories.

Her Olympic success began in Albertville when she took home a bronze in the 5,000 meters, the first for a united Germany. In 1994 she improved her performance, claiming a gold in the 5,000 and a bronze in the 3,000 meters. In Nagano she upped her successes by winning a silver in the 3,000 and a second gold in the 5,000.

Now Pechstein’s hoping to become the first female speed skater to win three consecutive gold medals in the 5,000 meters. To do so, though, she’s got to beat out her teammate Anni Friesinger.

All-around champion

Friesinger dominated the 2001/2002 World Cup circuit last month. She’s the all-around champ, undefeated in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meter races.

Friesinger's Olympic experience only dates back to Nagano when she placed third in the 500 meter track, but Salt Lake could change everything for her. She's the top-seated woman for the three long distance races.

Friesinger’s known and feared for her discipline and strength on the rink. Her daily regimen consists of six to eight hours of training on skates or inliners. And every year she logs 5,000 kilometers on her bike.

The 25-year-old is also known for her infamous victory parties and for a photo sequence in which she stepped out of her uniform for some very revealing shots.

The Bavarian glamour girl comes from a family of speed skaters. Both her mother and father competed on the international circuit before Anni was born, but neither one of them comes close to her golden shine.

Third time’s a charm

Sabine Völker, the third ice queen on the team has high hopes for Salt Lake. "It’s time for a medal," she says.

Völker has been the top sprinter on the world scene for almost a decade, but she’s never won an Olympic medal. After failing to qualify for the 1994 team and just narrowly missing a bronze in the 1,000 meters at the Nagano Olympics, she’s now ready to step up to the podium.

She’s got pretty good chances. In the pre-Olympic World Cup race last month, Völker came in second in the 1,000 meters, just a fraction behind fellow German Monique Garbrecht Enfeldt, who set the new world record of 1 minute 14:13 seconds.

In the overall standing for the 1,000 meters, Völker is the best bet for a gold. She’s also a strong contender for the 500 meter, where she’s ranked second.

Born in the East German town of Erfurt, Völker has long stood in the shadows of the mother of German speed skaters and fellow Erfurter, Gunda Niemann, whose eight Olympic medals still shine brightly.

Only when Niemann announced that she was pregnant and would not compete in this year’s Olympics could Völker and the other rising stars breathe freely.

If the German women pull of the Grand Slam in all distances, it will be the first speed skating sweep for men and women since 1984 when the East German women won medals in the 500, 1,000, 1,500, and 3,000 meters in Sarajevo.

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