Friesinger, Klassen showdown

TURIN, Italy -- It's long track speed skating's version of Ali-Frazier, Borg-Connors or Nicklaus-Palmer.

Two heavyweights of their sport, exchanging punches, taking turns winning world titles and generally pleasing the pants off anybody who enjoys a good duel.

Klassen-Friesinger may not roll off the tongue in Canada, where the sport gets the spotlight once every four years.

But where speed skating matters, this is a rivalry for the ages, two of the best in the business squaring off in one of the most anticipated individual matchups of the Winter Olympics.

Canada's Cindy Klassen, a low-key but tough-as-nails former hockey player from the Prairies, against Germany's Anni Friesinger.

'Europe against Canada'

"It's a little bit Europe against Canada," Paul Rump, a reporter from skating-mad Holland, told the Sun yesterday. "It will be one of the best fights to watch."

Klassen is the typical Canuck, shy and modest. Friesinger, on the other hand, is a bold self-promoter with her own website, complete with pictures of her in poses sultry enough to melt a Winnipeg snowbank in February.

Both have been red-hot this season, particularly during a thrilling stretch before Christmas when they took turns breaking each other's world records in the 1,500 metres.

Friesinger, 29, is the defending Olympic champ in the distance, Klassen the 26-year-old challenger.

At least one expert says the title is about to change hands.

"She (Klassen) is in the driver's seat," Catriona Le May Doan, the retired, two-time gold medallist, told the Sun. "Especially the 1,500. The 3,000 also. Anni Friesinger will be looking at her, saying she's the one to beat."

Now, there may be a little Canadian bias coming through in Le May Doan's comments. But there is evidence to back it up.

Klassen is the reigning world champ in the 1,500 and the 3,000, based on last season's world single distances championships. Friesinger finished second in the 1,500.

A year earlier, the finish order was reversed.

The two are neck-and-neck on the World Cup circuit, too: Friesinger leads the 1,500 standings -- barely -- while Klassen tops the 3,000-5,000 category.

Klassen also has a world record in the 3,000.

In the other corner, Rump says Friesinger has the title belt until someone wrestles it from her.

And let's not forget fellow German Claudia Pechstein, the defending gold medallist in the 3,000. Pechstein, though, is getting up there and probably focusing on an unprecedented fourth straight gold in the 5,000.

That leaves Klassen, Friesinger and a few others to duke it out in the middle distances.

Round 1, the 3,000, goes tomorrow.

Klassen's best event is probably the 1,500, but you won't catch her looking past Round 1.

"You don't want to be worrying about the other races when you have one in front of you," Klassen said. "After the race is over, I want to be able to think and reflect on it that day and then hopefully put it behind me the next day so I can prepare for the next race."

The next one, on Thursday, will be the 1,000, more of a sprint that doesn't favour either, although Klassen could be a threat.

The 1,500-metre showdown goes Feb. 22.

In between, Klassen and Friesinger will try to lead their teams to gold in the new team pursuit event.

But that's secondary.

"I'm more focused on the individual distances," Klassen said. "That's why I'm a speed skater."

A skater on a mission. Cool and focused, though, unlike Salt Lake City, when she was a bundle of nerves and could hardly sleep days before the Games.

"People are afraid of her when they go to race," Le May Doan said.

Perhaps this time they'll be the ones lying awake at night.

On second thought, Friesinger's too good for that.

She'll be ready to duel.

Tomorrow. 3,000 paces.

Right around sundown in Turin.

Contact Paul at pfriesen@wpgsun.com or 632-2788.