Gianni Romme doesn't unwind peacefully. A full hour after the
world's most dominant distance skater completes a draining
5,000-meter race in front of a cheering, flag-waving home crowd
at a World Cup event last month in Heerenveen, the Netherlands,
Romme is still accelerating. In a press room in the Thialf oval,
Romme chats, taps tables and twirls unattended pens. At times he
seems to be shivering. He asks you the time. He asks you who
made your watch. He tells you he has one just like it, except
for the color, style and manufacturer. He likes to find common
ground with people and usually does. Most of all, he likes to be
His wife, Marielle van Scheppingen, a top Dutch cyclist, knows
the signs. "When he is happy," she says, "he is moving with
hands and feet all around and talking, maybe to me, maybe just
talking. A bad day, he sits like this." Van Scheppingen poses in
an exaggerated slump. Like others in Thialf on this day, van
Scheppingen wants to know if this is a bad day--that is, does
her husband view his second-place showing in the 5,000 (14
seconds off his world-record 6:18.72) as a comeback race or
another setback? At his previous meet, the Dutch Olympic trials
in December, Romme, 28, had finished fifth in the 5,000,
qualifying for these Games only in the 10,000. (He competes
today at noon.) This was almost unthinkable considering that
Romme won the 5,000 and the 10,000 in Nagano, was the world
all-around champion in 2000 and had won nine of his last 10
World Cup races at 5,000 meters. Until the trials Romme's
repeating his Olympic triumphs seemed as predictable as winter
snow. Now van Scheppingen watches Romme, seated with his back to
her, speaking to friends. As she watches, her husband begins
bouncing his legs up and down. "Look, look!" she says. "Oh, it
is O.K. Dinner will be a good time tonight."
Anytime Romme talks is a good time. Ask him how van Scheppingen,
whom he met at a speed skating camp nine years ago, influences
him, and he replies, "When I do bad, she tells me, 'You skate
like a dumb-ass,' and I thank her." Romme's coach, Peter Mueller,
sees Romme's gregarious nature as "a way to protect himself. He
likes to be around people. He likes action."
Romme excels when playing the underdog, a bit of a trick when
you're the best in the world at something. He learned that in
his hometown of Made (MAH-deh), in the south of Holland, a
region of the country better known for cycling. The boy lacked
coordination but never drive. "When I was 11, I put on my dad's
skates and I went out and right away there was a corner and I
went straight into a tree," he says. "I felt a bit sore, O.K.,
but I felt for the first time what it was to make speed on the
ice. So I thought then I go again and, O.K., maybe next time the
tree moves." Romme qualified for a district team at 16, an age
when, he says, his form resembled a fish swimming on sand. He
won some local cycling races and used the prize money to support
his skating ambitions. He also worked eight hours a day,
beginning at 6 a.m., watering and trimming plants in a
greenhouse, and also taught swimming. At his first major
international race in Davos, Switzerland, Romme (who was 20 and
had yet to qualify for the national team) hoped to impress the
Dutch coaches. "I so nervous I try to move like this," he says,
showing off his best fish flap. "I move all but my legs. After
four laps I blow up. Just brrrooosh, like that."
To compensate for limited talent, Romme trained relentlessly.
When he figured hopping drills on one leg with a sandbag on his
back weren't taxing enough, he replaced the sandbag with his
father, Toon, a speed skating instructor. "I like cycling uphill
in the mountains," Romme says. "From the foot of the mountain
you look up and you know mountain wants to hurt you. You fight
the mountain. It's a nice view to look down at the mountain and
say, 'I beat you.'" To get ready for Salt Lake, Romme toiled for
three weeks last summer on the volcanic landscape of Lanzarote
in the Canary Islands. In a typical workout he leaps the steps
of an empty stadium, feet parallel, back hunched, three steps at
a time, up and down each aisle, going around the stadium.
In 1996 Romme's skating crouch was so exaggerated that he began
to have circulation problems in his upper legs and waist. Henk
Gemser, his coach from 1995 to '98, adjusted his stride, lifting
his back slightly, allowing Romme a longer glide with each
stroke and enabling him to take fewer strides per straightaway.
When most distance skaters were taking eight to 10, Romme could
get by with six to eight. The extra power he generated
compensated for his form, which was becoming less flawed by the
year. In 1996 he won his first world title, taking the 10,000
meters in Hamar, Norway. At a World Cup event in Heerenveen in
December '97 Romme--by then wearing the new clap skates that
would revolutionize the sport--lowered the 5,000-meter world
record held by Norway's Johann Koss by 4.33 seconds, to 6:30.63.
Romme entered the Nagano Games as a prohibitive favorite in both
distance races. Before he skated the first, the 5,000, however,
he watched Bart Veldkamp and then Rintje Ritsma surpass his world
record, the latter dropping the mark to 6:28.24. "Before that
race it was so strange," he says. "I was angry. I said, 'What are
you doing with my world record? You skate for the second place.'
It was the only time in my whole career I had that feeling."
Without thinking of split times, Romme blazed through the first
four laps well under world-record pace, his rhythm as relaxed and
easy as if he were on a training stroll. Ritsma said later that
he knew the mark was gone by the third kilometer. The final time,
6:22.20, stood as the world record until Romme broke it the
following month in Calgary.
Nine days remained before the Olympic 10,000. When van
Scheppingen, who had stayed behind in Holland, mentioned in a
telephone interview that she had passed up the trip to save
money, two Dutch companies provided a free airline ticket to
send her to Nagano in time for Romme's second race and paid for
her lodging while she was in Japan. Before the 10,000 Koss
predicted that Romme could break his record in that race,
13:30.55, "with one leg." Romme used both legs, but he indeed
blew away the record--by 15 seconds--leading the Dutch to a
sweep of the medals. (Today Romme's record stands at 13:03.40.)
He returned home and stood on a platform before 40,000 people in
his hometown of 15,000. In the country where some say the
atmosphere is four parts nitrogen, one part oxygen and three
parts speed skating, Romme opened stores, signed the bare backs
of fans who lined up outdoors in the Dutch winter to see him and
even visited Queen Beatrix at her palace in the Hague--where he
was delighted to discover a royal fondness for bitterballen, or
"bitter balls," the little meat-and-dough treats beloved by the
Dutch common man. "She served them," Romme says, "and I thought,
O.K., the Queen eats bitter balls. She's all right." Romme also
played spectator at his parents' frequent masters' competitions
around the country. A typical day of cross-training for his
mother, Dymphy, a world silver medalist in the 50-55 age group,
entails a milelong swim in the morning, a 35-mile bike ride in
the afternoon and in the evening some in-line skating with Toon.
Romme also became a proud 32 handicapper on the golf course,
where, he confesses, "sometimes the club flies farther than the
ball." His most decadent post-Olympic purchase was a television
with a six-foot-by-10-foot screen for his living room, where he
has watched his favorite movie, The Big Lebowski, at least 50
times. How much does he like the bowling-centric Coen brothers
film? Romme has dubbed his coach the Dude, in recognition of
Mueller's resemblance to the Jeff Bridges character in the film.
Mueller, in turn, labeled Romme Double Dude in honor of the two
In early 1999 Romme joined forces with Mueller, the U.S.-born
coach who had worked with Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen. Romme
incorporated Mueller's expertise as a sprint coach, rapidly
improving his speed and his cornering technique. He also
identified with Mueller's sometimes impulsive approach to life,
though two episodes temporarily strained the relationship. Spaar
Select, a financial company, had long sponsored Mueller's team.
In June 2000, however, three months after Romme won the world
all-around championship, Mueller began negotiating with another
financial company, DSB, about his squad's signing on with it.
Mueller leveraged those talks to double his team's deal with
Spaar Select. "I was happy with Spaar Select," says Romme, whose
income eclipsed the million-dollar mark after the new contract.
"What Pete did helped us, but I didn't like [how it came about]."
Then early last year Mueller began dating Dutch speed skater
Marianne Timmer, whom he had coached to two gold medals in
Nagano but who was now a member of a rival club. In August 2001
Mueller, 47, and Timmer, 27, wed secretly in Las Vegas. Mueller
only told Romme about the marriage when the team assembled the
following month and then said that he wanted Timmer to join his
team. Romme, who had met Timmer when both were on the national
team but admits he didn't know her well, was quoted in the Dutch
monthly Sport International as saying, "Marianne with the team
could be a danger" to the chemistry of the group. Though he
acknowledges the remarks, Romme says, "I was talking from what
I'd heard, not what I knew. I know her [better] now and I like
her. She is a good friend, good teammate."
All seemed fine this year for Romme until the Dutch trials. He
admits he might have neglected his speed work a few weeks before
the competition, while Mueller was at a separate camp with the
team's sprinters. In retrospect, however, Romme thinks the real
reason for his poor showing was that the season was simply too
easy for him. He wasn't challenged enough, scared enough,
frenzied enough to face the mountain and skate fast. At Utah
Olympic Oval today that shouldn't be a problem, as he sets out
to climb the most challenging peak of his career. No matter how
fast he gets there, it will be a blast to listen to him on the
way back down.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JERRY LAMPEN/REUTERS
COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN The dude with a soft spot for The Big Lebowski is a star in his own right, with an income of more than $1 million a year.
COLOR PHOTO: JASPER JUINEN/AFP
"When I was 11," Romme says, "I put on my dad's skates and I
went out and right away there was a corner and I went straight
into a tree."
"He likes to be around people," says Mueller of the ebullient
Romme. "He likes action."