The Netherlands has long been the dominant force in world speed-skating, a sport that has produced 27 of its 29 gold medals at the Olympic Winter Games (and 82 out of its total of 86 medals). Now its latest star Ireen Wüst is determined to propel herself into a league of her own.
“We have two women from the Netherlands [Yvonne van Gennip and Marianne Timmer] who have each won three Olympic gold medals and I have two, so now I want to win at least four,” explains the Dutch star looking ahead to Sochi 2014. “That’s my target. I hope to win the 1,500m, the 3,000m and the team pursuit.”
Born in Goirle in North Brabant, Wüst was only 19 when she burst on to the scene, winning the 3,000m at Turin 2006 to become the Netherlands’ youngest ever champion at the Olympic Winter Games. “It was incredible to win Olympic gold in Turin in 2006,” she recalled. “I’d never won anything before and then in my first Olympic race I won the gold. It was indescribable. Even when I see the race back now, I can’t believe I did it. It’s an amazing feeling.”
After going on to finish fourth in the 1,000m at Turin and take bronze in the 1,500m, she rounded off a memorable breakthrough campaign by being voted Dutch Sportswoman of the Year, an accolade won previously by both Van Gennip (in 1988) and Timmer (in 1998).
She followed up by winning the world all-round speed skating title on home ice in Heerenveen in 2007, then took golds in the 1,000m and 1,500m at the 2007 World Single Distance Championships in Salt Lake City (USA) and another in the team pursuit at the 2008 Worlds in Nagano (JPN). A gold medallist again at the 2008 European All-Round Speed Skating Championships in Kolomna (RUS), Wüst maintained her dominance going into Vancouver 2010, where she beat home favourite Kristina Groves by 0.025 of a second in the 1,500m to retain her Olympic title.
Onwards and upwards
The Dutch speed skater raised the bar even higher in the countdown to Sochi by taking the world all-round titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and completing a 1,500m/3,000m double at the 2011 Single Distance World Championships, a feat that she repeated at the 2013 Worlds, which took place at Sochi’s Adler Arena, where she also won team pursuit gold.
Having amassed three golds and two silvers in the space of four days during what was effectively a dry run for Sochi 2014, she is confident of success when she returns to the Russian city in February. “At the Winter Games, I want to do the same events but I have two weeks to do it, so I have time to recover,” she says. “If I can do it in four days, I definitely believe I can do it in two weeks.”
“I’ve skated for a long time now, and I competed in the last two Winter Games, so I know what to expect and I know how to race,” she adds. “Everyone has their own way, but for me I need to find the balance between being really focused and being relaxed. If I’m too nervous, I won’t be able to achieve my goal as it affects my body. I’ve got a routine that I follow, which helps me focus. One hour before the race, I will start my warm-up. I listen to music – whatever is popular in the charts at the time – while I do some cycling, stretching.
Even if she doesn’t manage to overhaul Van Gennip and Timmer’s gold tallies at Sochi, she knows she has time on her side and has every intention of having another go in 2018: “For now, I’m focusing on Sochi, but I would also like to compete in PyeongChang in 2018. That’s my goal. I want to compete there and then retire, but you don’t know for sure. Hopefully I can stay healthy and not have any injuries. Then, we’ll see what happens.”
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