Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The next Heiden? American Stolz a speedskating star at 18

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Coming off an unprecedented performance at the world championships, 18-year-old Jordan Stolz is already facing the inevitable comparisons to the greatest speedskater of them all.

Stolz chuckles a bit at being mentioned in the same sentence with the guy who won five gold medals — in five individual events ranging from 500 to 10,000 meters — at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

But the teenager who grew up skating on a frozen pond behind his home in suburban Milwaukee and is still a few months away from graduating high school doesn’t shy away from it, either.

“Yeah, winning five gold medals is possible, but doing it the way he did it is just crazy,” Stolz said.

It was pretty crazy the way Stolz bested the world’s best at last weekend’s single-distance championships in the Netherlands, the center of the speedskating universe and where the media already has dubbed him “ straaljager “ — jet fighter.

Not only did he become the youngest world champion in the sport’s history, he swept the 500, 1,000 and 1,500-meter titles to become the first male skater to win world titles at three different distances.

And it wasn’t even that close.

Stolz knew it was going to be a good meet when he blew away the field in the 500, winning by a whopping 0.36 seconds — a greater margin than the separation between the top 10 finishers at last year’s Beijing Olympics.

Then he took down the mighty Dutch team in his other two events, beating the reigning Olympic champions in the 1,000 (Thomas Krol was runner-up by 0.67 seconds) and 1,500 (Kjeld Nuis settled for second, with Beijing silver medalist Krol bumped to the bronze).

“I can’t even describe how much fun it is,” his coach, Bob Corby, told The Associated Press. “He’s just phenomenal. It’s just so much fun to work with somebody who’s that good.”

Stolz’s rise to prominence is indeed phenomenal, especially at an age that is supposedly years away from a male speedskater’s normal prime.

His father, Dirk, definitely saw it coming. After Stolz finished 13th in the 500 and 14th in the 1,000 as a 17-year-old in his Olympic debut at Beijing, he suddenly grew up.

“I looked at him in September and saw how much his body had matured and filled out,” the elder Stolz told the AP in a telephone interview. “His legs got bigger. I could see the man coming out of him.”

Jordan knew it too, telling his father, “I feel so strong.”

Still, the season began with a more modest goal: winning the world junior championship.

Stolz accomplished that feat last month in Inzell, Germany, winning the 500, 1,000 and 1,500, taking third place in both the 5,000 and mass star and claiming the overall world junior title.

Then, just three weeks later, he wiped out the big boys — joining Heiden and his sister Beth as the only skaters to claim both junior and senior world titles in the same year.

“Jordan put on quite a performance,” Eric Heiden wrote in an email to the AP. “A real superstar for the present and future.”

Taking on such a wide range of distances puts Stolz in a truly unique group of skaters, with Heiden at the top of the list, of course.

Heiden remains one of only two male skaters — the other being another American great, Shani Davis — to win both the world sprint and world overall titles in their careers.

Of course, it was Heiden who claimed the sport’s Holy Grail by sweeping all five speedskating events in Lake Placid.

Stolz knows how tough it would be to replicate Heiden’s Olympic performance, especially in today’s more specialized speedskating world. But the Olympic program now includes two events that weren’t around in Heiden’s era, the mass start and team pursuit.

“That’s two more ways to win five gold medals,” Stolz told the AP in a late-night phone interview from the Netherlands. “That’s certainly easier than winning the 5k and 10k when you’re a sprinter. We’ll just have to see. By next year, we should be able to tell if it’s possible.”

When Stolz returns to the United States later this week to begin his offseason program, one of the first things he’ll discuss with Corby is what events he wants to tackle.

Stolz has been one of the world’s best in the 5,000 at the junior level, but he’s never even raced the 10,000. If he wants to be a world all-around champion, like Heiden and Davis, he’ll have to skate them both.

To win them at the Olympics, along with the three shorter races — well, that’s an entirely different proposition.

“Ohhhh, that’s the stratosphere right there,” Corby said. “Everyone in speedskating recognizes that Eric Heiden is the greatest speedskater who ever lived. Even saying, ‘Yeah, we should try that,’ that’s like saying, ‘Do you have a screw loose or something?’”

U.S national team coach Ryan Shimabukuro is urging Stolz not to listen to any talk of duplicating Heiden, especially with the next Olympics in Milan still nearly three years away.

“Let’s give the kid a chance and don’t put these kind of expectations on him just yet,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s premature to put the Heiden comparison on him. It’s a little too early and unfair to do that. That would take something special.”

But the coach who oversaw a much improved performance by the U.S. speedskating team in Beijing — Erin Jackson won a gold medal, and the Americans also took a pair of bronzes — knows that his country has another star on the horizon.

Stolz’s technique on the turns has been described as near perfection, and he’s still at an age where he can only get stronger.

“He has the potential,” Shimabukuro said, “to do something extraordinary at future Olympic games.”

Paul Newberry is a national sports writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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