SOCHI, Russia -- In the late 1990s, some 12 million people in the Netherlands indicated in a national survey that they were recreational ice skaters. The population of the tiny nation, about as big as New Jersey and Massachusetts combined, is 16.8 million.
"So, no babies, no elders ... everybody else was on the ice," said John Volkers, who covers speedskating for de Volkskrant, a daily newspaper in Amsterdam.
Speedskating is one of two national sports in Holland -- soccer is the other -- and the Dutch follow it like football fans in Tuscaloosa follow Alabama or baseball fans in Boston follow the Red Sox. It's a passion bordering on obsession.
"It's the heart of the Dutch," Volkers said.
U.S. coach Ryan Shimabukuro said that by comparison speedskating was a "very, very tiny sport" in America.
"I equate it to this: When a Dutch baseball player comes to the United States and throws a no-hitter in Game 7 of the World Series, that's the comparison," he said. "I think we've done very well considering the resources and the popularity that speedskating has in the U.S."
Dutch speedskaters are giving their rowdy fans plenty to cheer about at the Sochi Games. Through nine of 12 races at the Adler Arena, the "Orange Crush" has swept the podium four times and has won 19 of 27 medals. It's the most dominant performance by one country in one sport in the history of the Winter Olympics.
What's their secret?
"They're skating faster than everybody else, obviously," said Joey Mantia of the U.S. "They're medaling and they've been doing big things. Obviously, they have a talent pool that's a mile long and they showed up to skate and that's what they're doing."
The Americans have been hugely disappointing on the heels of a successful World Cup season and have failed to win a single medal. The Dutch, on the other hand, have exceeded even their lofty expectations.
Thirteen skaters from the Netherlands have medaled, led by Ireen Wust with gold in the women's 3,000 meters and silver in the 1,000 and 1,500. The Dutch also have set three Olympic records: Sven Kramer in the 5K, Jorrit Bergsma in the 10K and Jorien ter Mors in the women's 1,500.
Their supremacy seems to be the result of a perfect ice storm: The Dutch brought a loaded team that was prepared for sea level ice and peaked at the right time.
Bart Schouten, a native of the Netherlands who coached in the U.S. and now coaches in Canada, said the Dutch have a deep pool of talent and the skaters constantly compete for spots on professional and national teams.
They benefit from being able to train on four indoor rinks and 14 outdoor 400-meter ovals in their country and also from the fact that a handful of their coaches are former Olympic champions.
It doesn't hurt that they can make a handsome living as speedskaters. According to Volkers, Kramer is a millionaire and his coach, Gerard Kemkers, makes 250,000 Euros (about $345,000) annually.
"So it's a combination of money, knowledge, talent and ice rinks," Volkers said.
And then there's national pride. Ten years ago, Americans Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick started piling up World Cup victories and podium finishes at world championships and combined to win nine medals at the 2006 and 2010 Winter Games.
"That was a real smash in the face for the Dutch, you know?" Volkers said. "How can these guys beat our skaters? How is that possible? We had, of course, Eric Heiden and Johan Olav Koss from Norway, but this was a blow and it made a kind of catalyst in the feeling that we have to work hard to put the Americans a little bit back.
"At the same moment two enormous talents came along, Ireen Wust and Sven Kramer. And everyone out of the seven professional teams we have in the Netherlands are trying to get to their level. It's the peak of an exceptional generation of speedskaters. It's an overwhelming pool of talent that we have."
The Dutch not only arrived in Sochi with a deep team, but they easily adapted to the ice at the Adler Arena, something the Americans have not managed to do.
In fact, Russian coach Konstantin Poltavets said the slow "working ice" was the key to the Netherlands' success.
"The Dutch are used to this ice," he said. "It's very similar to the rink in Heerenveen. They know how to skate on this type of ice and they made the most of it."
Not everyone agreed.
"I doubt the Russians would build a rink which would be best for the Dutch," Mantia said. "The problem is that the Dutch are skating better."
It's only a problem for the rest of the world. For the Netherlands, it's a thing of beauty.
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