Flying the flagCzech speed skater Martina Sáblíková was only 18 when she took part in her first Olympic Winter Games at Turin 2006. While something of an unknown outside her sport, her opponents knew full well she was a force to be reckoned with, the teenager having broken a string of junior world records and won her first European Championship medals by the time she went to Italy. A further indication of her growing stature and the huge expectations invested in her came at the opening ceremony in Turin, where she carried her country’s flag.
Learning the ropesA long-distance specialist, Sáblíková was the youngest member of the 3,000m field at the 2006 Games, coming home seventh in that event and missing out on fourth place by just a few tenths of a second in the 5,000m, despite being some eight to 15 years younger than her opponents. In the next four years, however, the up-and-coming Czech skater took her place in the global elite, winning six world titles, three of them consecutively in the 5,000m, an event in which she also holds the world record. When Vancouver 2010 finally came around, Sablikova was the red-hot favourite for gold in the endurance events.
Medal collectorThe Czech kicked off her Canadian challenge by cruising to victory in the 3,000m, finishing more than two seconds clear of her closest pursuer to win her maiden Olympic gold medal and her country’s first in the event. A week later, Sáblíková took to the start line in the 1,500m, turning in an exceptional performance to win bronze in an event that was far from her strongest suit.
Out on her ownThough she had already made her mark on the Winter Games with two medals, the best was yet to come for the skater from Nové Město, who was poised for further glory in the 5,000m, the distance that had brought her most success in her short but already illustrious career. Thanks to her status as the world No1, Sáblíková went out in the last pair with Germany’sStephanie Beckert, aware of what she needed to do to win gold. Yet despite setting the fastest split times as early as the second lap, she was forced to keep the pace up, with Beckert, the 3,000m silver medallist, staying right in touch with her throughout. The Czech maintained her momentum, however, crossing the line nearly half a second clear of her rival to win her second gold of the Games and her third medal in all.
Cycling to successThe absence of speed skating rinks in Czech Republic has forced Sáblíková and her coach Petr Novák to use their imagination when it comes to training, with cycling just one of the sports she has taken up in preparing for races. Proving herself to be more than adept on two wheels, she actually won the national road time trial title in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
In the meantime, she continued to rack up the victories on the ice, winning the 5,000m world title for a fourth time in Inzell (GER) in 2011 and retaining it in Heerenveen (NED) in 2012 and in Sochi (RUS) a year later.
It was in Sochi in 2014 that she retained her Olympic crown at the same distance, outlasting the Netherlands’ Ireen Wüst, who had beaten her into second place in the 3,000m ten days earlier. With five Olympic medals to her name already, three of them gold, Sáblíková has become her country’s greatest ever speed skater.
The Czech speedster turned 27 just a few weeks after Sochi and there is every reason to think that she can add to her impressive medal collection in the future.