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Record-breaker Holum bags gold

Dianne Holum was 21 years old going into the 1972 Winter Games, but she was virtually a veteran. Five years earlier the American had become the youngest ever athlete to compete in the world speed skating championships.

In 1967, while still just 15, she won bronze at the World All-Around Championships. And then on her Olympic debut at Grenoble 1968 she claimed silver in the 500m, after a three-way tie for second place, as well as a bronze in the 1,000m.

Holum arrived in Japan with her confidence at an all-time high and chasing medals in three events in Sapporo: the 1,000m, 1.500m and the 3,000m. She started off with her favourite event, the 1,500m, knowing that she faced a very tough field. First there was the hugely experienced Dutch skater Atje Keulen-Deelstra, who had hit form before the Games; then there was the USSR’s Nina Statkevich, who was the 1971 world champion, and finally there was Keulen-Deelstra’s compatriot, Stien Baas-Kaiser, who had broken the world record the previous year. It was a line-up of rare quality.

The early mark was set by Keulen-Deelstra, with a time of 2 minutes 22.05 seconds. But the fifth pair produced the most fascinating head-to-head, pitching Holum and Statkevich together in a fantastic race. They were deadlocked for the half of the race, and then through 600m and even 700m. It was a gripping tussle between two of the world's finest speed skaters, and there was nothing to choose between them.

And then, very gradually, the American began to open a narrow advantage, as the sped towards the line. Statkevich began to fade, and eventually ended up outside the medals. But Holum's pace saw her finish more than a second ahead of Keulen-Deelstra's time, setting a new Olympic record in the process.

She looked on tensely as the rest of the field completed their runs. But in the end, there was only one skater who really tested Holum's nerves.

That was Baas-Kaiser, who was racing in the 12th pair. She started slowly and was more than a second behind after 300m. In fact, that gap barely closed as Baas-Kaiser passed the 1,000m mark but then the Dutch skater accelerated towards the finish. Over the final few hundred metres, the gap closed significantly but Baas-Kaiser couldn't quite make up the time on Holum, falling short by just 0.2 seconds, which was good enough to give her the silver.

Holum went on to add another silver in the 3,000m, taking her overall tally to four Olympic medals, which at the time was a new record for an American female athlete at the Winter Games. She retired from competition to become a coach. Among her early pupils was a young skater called Eric Heiden who she helped achieve greatness, while another, her own daughter Kirstin, was Junior World All-Around Champion in 1997 and competed at the 1998 Winter Games.

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