Everybody loves skater Cindy

TURIN -- He wore an orange helmet with the gold-painted skate embedded in it.

Nestled inside the skate was the Netherlands' version of a teddy bear, a Dutch Lion, its head peering out of the boot like a Manitoba gopher peeking out of its hole.

Miniature wooden shoes, pins and other trinkets also adorned the hard-hat.

You get the feeling Gerrit Hofstra is a hard-core skating fan -- is there any other kind in his country?

Hofstra even has his own version of an Olympic medal collection: hanging from his neck is a collection of small, red pucks, the kind they use to mark the lanes in speed skating.

There's one from Albertville 1992, Lillehammer '94 -- and in four years Hofstra plans to set aside his fear of flying and add one from Vancouver.

Hofstra is not only one of the best-adorned Dutch fans here, he's got to be one of the most passionate.

Anyone who's gone to the trouble of making this particular piece of headgear is right over the top.

"I've had it for 20 years," Hofstra told the Sun from his seat at the Oval Lingotto. "It's been all over Europe."

Hofstra is one of a few thousand fans from the Netherlands who've made the trek here to watch skating.

They've turned the seats at the Oval into a sea of orange -- and a screaming wall of sound every time a skater chugs past.

While they cheer them all, they appreciate some more than others.

Outspoken Texan Chad Hedrick, who predicted he could win five gold medals here?

The Dutch can take him or leave him.

On the other hand, they can't get enough of someone like Winnipeg's Cindy Klassen, a shy, modest star who'd never make a brash prediction -- but who might just win five medals.

Will to win

Sure, they admire Klassen's combination of power and endurance, her grit and determination, her will to win.

But they also can't get enough of that warm-your-heart-on-a-January-night-in-Winnipeg smile.

"I applaud for Cindy Klassen," Hofstra said. "She is always happy. She is a great girl. She always waves."

Due to the stature of speed skating in the two countries, Klassen may be a bigger star in the Netherlands than she is in Canada.

Whenever the World Cup circuit takes her there, she'll routinely race before thousands of screaming fans.

"The Dutch fans are awesome," Klassen said. "It's really exciting whenever we race in front of a big crowd of them. They cheer for everybody. That's really special."

On Sunday, Klassen became a triple-medallist here, winning a silver in the 1,000 metres, to go along with her bronze in the 3,000 and silver in the team pursuit.

She wouldn't dream of sulking that she hasn't finished first, though. She has far too much respect for her opponents than that.

The feeling is mutual.

"She's really good," said Dutch skater Marianne Timmer, who edged Klassen by .04 seconds to win gold in the 1,000.

"And when she hits it, she hits it hard, and she's going like crazy. She's a great sporter."

It's Klassen's sportsmanship that impresses Irene Postma, a reporter with the International Skating Union.

"She enjoys herself, and that seems to be her focus, instead of winning gold," Postma said.

Klassen's four career medals (she won a bronze at Salt Lake City) has the 26-year-old poised to join Marc Gagnon (1994-2002) and Phil Edwards (1928-36) as Canada's most decorated Olympic athletes of all time, with five.

But even though tomorrow's 1,500 is her strongest event, she refuses to make a prediction.

"It could be anybody's day," Klassen said. "I'm going to keep an open mind. Hopefully, the 1,500 will go well. I think (the 1,000) was a good sign for the 1,500 ... I'm looking forward to it."

As are her growing legion of fans, from North Kildonan to the Netherlands.