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Michel Mulder wins thriller as Dutch sweep 500

Smeekens lands second after believing he won; Michel's twin takes bronze
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In a scintillating finish, Dutch skater Michel Mulder held off countryman Jan Smeekens to win the 500-meter gold in Sochi. Mulder established his combined 69.312 time in the penultimate pair of the second race, with Smeekins coming in at 69.324 in the second race's final pairing. -Getty Images

Emotions ran high Monday in the Adler Arena at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, and there was a general feeling of shock after the Dutch skaters, who had never won the 500 meters in an Olympic Winter Games before, swept the podium: gold for Michel Mulder, silver for Jan Smeekens and bronze for Ronald Mulder, Michel's twin brother.

All three Dutch men were among the favorites, together with 2010 Olympic champion Tae-Bum Mo of Korea. There was confusion, too, as it was initially unclear whether Michel Mulder or Smeekens has become champion, but ultimately, it was Mulder who prevailed.

The first 500 meters (skaters complete two runs and add up their times) had only a few skaters that managed to skate below 35 seconds, and the Americans were not among them. Tucker Fredricks was the fastest of them in this run with 35.27, only good enough for 18th place. Teammates Mitchell Whitmore finished in 35.34 and Shani Davis in 35.39. Brian Hansen, also of Team USA, raced to 35.64 and withdrew from the competition, trying to recover for his better distances.

Smeekens started out extremely strong in the first 500 meters, opening with 9.59 seconds followed by a 25.0 lap, resulting in 34.59, a huge improvement of his track record. It was a time that nobody could better during that first run. Michel Mulder managed to hit 9.58 at the first count and reached 34.63 overall. In the final pair, Ronald Mulder skated in 34.969, only sixth at the time, but he was still in position to reach the podium.

The second 500 meters was a background battle for the Americans. Fredricks seemed to let up and finished in 35.72. Teammates Whitmore and Davis were paired together, and although Davis had the slower opening, the favorite for the 1,000 meters had a good lap test and beat Whitmore 35.59 to 35.71, becoming the best American.

The first "wow" factor performance in the second 500 meters belonged to Ronald Mulder, who skated a near-perfect race and set the fastest time of the day at 34.49, only 0.07 above the Olympic record from Salt Lake City. Michel Mulder had a time similar to his first race, 34.67, staying ahead of his brother. Smeekens needed 34.72 to win, and he finished in 34.72, exactly the time that he had needed according to the scoreboard. There was a "1" in front of his name, and he celebrated, not realizing that this made him equal to Michel Mulder and, in that case, the final verdict would come down to the thousandths of a second. Smeekens' total was 69.324, with Michel Mulder's at 69.312. Thus, after a few seconds, it was Michel Mulder who could throw his hands in the air, while Smeekens was devastated with the silver. Ronald Mulder was happy to be on the podium as well.

"I tried to stay calm, think of the race, not of others," Michel Mulder said. "I focused on little things, like two good races, how to approach the corners and so. The nerves where there; without nerves, you can't compete, but I knew I did do it before, win in tough situations.

"After the race, I thought Jan and I were equal, but I thought I was second when I saw the '1' at his name and got a flashback from when I lost the world title in Heerenveen last year to Mo with 0.01. Deep respect for Smeekens, who in spite of his immense disappointment, came to me quickly to congratulate me."

"It was like a kick in the butt," Smeekens said. "I was so ecstatic that I won, and then there is such a big contrast between Olympic champion and not being it, with only 0.01 second; that is tough for me. I fought hard for it, did everything I could. Of course, I challenged, and they looked carefully at the photo finish. The judges said it was legitimate. The Mulders did a good job, but I have never seen a 0.04 correction in my life."

The Mulder twins were inordinately happy with their podium places.

"In a perfect scenario, I would be at the top, with my brother next to me," Ronald Mulder said. "After being sixth in the first race, I tried to make it as hard as possible. I am happy I just made it to the podium after the first race. Jan is my teammate, and Michel is my twin. There are not many chances to win a gold medal, and it must be really hard for Jan."

Ryan Shimabukuro, U.S. sprint coach, said he was impressed with how the Dutch skated. He did not think it bad for speed skating that the Dutch finally managed to master the 500 meters.

"In the days that the Americans won or the Asians, nobody said that it would be bad for skating in those days," he said.