Blazing a trail for Dutch speed skating
The most decorated Olympic speed skater of all time with 11 medals in all, Ireen Wüst is also the Netherlands’ most successful Olympian ever. A winner of gold medals at every Winter Games since making her debut at Turin 2006, she has collected an unprecedented four consecutive medals in the 1,500m alone.
Gold at 19
The Netherlands has long been the dominant force in speed skating, a sport that has produced 35 of the country’s 37 gold medals at the Olympic Winter Games (and 105 out of its total of 110 medals). Yet even in a country that has bred champions for decades, Ireen Wüst has propelled herself into a league of her own.
Wüst first made her mark on the international stage at the Lingotto Oval at Turin 2006, when, at just 19, she became the Netherlands’ youngest ever Olympic champion in her sport, claiming gold in the women’s 3,000m. After going on to take bronze in the 1,500m, she was voted Dutch Sportswoman of the Year.
“The win in Turin in 2006 was just incredible,” she later said. “I hadn’t won anything before that, and there I was in my first Olympic race, winning a gold medal. Even when I watch the race today, I still can’t believe that I did it. It was an amazing feeling.”
Second title in Vancouver
Born in the town of Goirle, the young star followed up her Olympic triumph by winning the world allround speed skating title on home ice in Heerenveen (NED) in 2007, before adding a silver in the same competition in Berlin (GER) the following year.
Wüst also took golds in the 1,000m and 1,500m at the 2007 World Single Distance Championships in Salt Lake City (USA), in the team pursuit at the 2008 Worlds in Nagano (JPN) and in the European Allround Speed Skating Championships in Kolomna (RUS) that same year.
The Dutch speedster was in top form again at Vancouver 2010, where she beat home favourite Kristina Groves by 0.25 seconds in the 1,500m at the Richmond Oval to pick up the second Olympic gold of her brilliant career.
Raising the bar
In the Olympic cycle leading up to Sochi 2014, Wüst continued to add to her collection of world titles, regaining the world allround crown in 2011 and going on to defend it successfully the next two years. She also claimed the 1,500m and 3,000m titles in 2011 and then again in Sochi’s Adler Arena in 2013, where she was also a member of the Dutch trio that won the world team pursuit title.
The Dutch were utterly dominant when Sochi 2014 came around, claiming 23 medals in all, eight of them gold.
The irrepressible Wüst made a huge contribution to that overall total, regaining the 3,000m title before landing silvers in the 1,000m, 1,500m and 5,000m. She then teamed up with Marrit Leenstra and Jorien ter Mors to smash the Olympic team pursuit record, winning gold by a margin of more than seven seconds over runners-up Poland.
Wüst’s five-medal haul made her the most decorated athlete at Sochi 2014.
“I would like to compete at PyeongChang 2018,” Wüst later said, weighing up her chances of yet more Olympic success. “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.”
The next three years saw Wüst and Czech Republic’s three-time Olympic champion Martina Sábliková – the skater who beat her to gold in the 5,000m at Sochi 2014 – wage an intense rivalry. Sábliková got the better of the Dutch skater at the World Allround Speed Skating Championships in Calgary in 2015 and again in Berlin a year later.
Wüst was back on top in Hamar (NOR) in March 2017, however, winning her sixth world crown in the event, and her first since 2014, edging her Czech adversary by a mere 0.64 seconds over the four distances.
A mainstay of the Dutch pursuit team at the World Single Distances Championships, Wüst helped secure gold in the event in 2016 and 2017, the second of those competitions being held at the Gangneung Oval, where she also beat Sábliková in the 3000m. With those two golds, Wüst won her 11th and 12th world single distance titles.
“The ice master did a good job and I could skate really fast,” said the Dutch star, giving her impressions of the PyeongChang 2018 venue. “I can’t wait to come back here next year.”
A league of her own
Wüst’s first race at PyeongChang 2018, her fourth Winter Games, was the 3,000m, which took place on the day after the Opening Ceremony. To defend the title she had won four years earlier, Wüst had to beat team-mate Carlijn Achtereekte’s time, and seemed set to do it when she led at every split. When she crossed the line, however, she was 0.08 seconds adrift and had to settle for silver, her ninth Olympic medal.
Two days later Wüst became the first Winter Olympian to win medals in the same event at four consecutive Games, a feat she completed by taking gold in the 1,500m by a margin of 0.20 seconds from Japan’s Miho Takagi. She had won bronze at the distance in 2006, gold in 2010, and silver in 2014. It gave her a fifth Olympic gold and a tenth medal, more than any other speed skater – of either sex – in the history of the Games.
Wüst’s recipe for success is a simple one, as she explained afterwards: “The bigger the race, the more important it is, the better able I am to get the most out of my body. I love skating when it really counts. I never feel scared. I love it.
“Two days ago, I realised that the 1,500m was taking place on 12 February, which is 12 years to the day since I won my first title at Turin 2006. I dreamed of winning gold medals at every Olympic Games, and now that I’ve fulfilled that dream it’s an incredible feeling.”
Wüst then took her Olympic medal haul to 11 with silver in the team pursuit, an event in which she, Leenstra and ter Mors finished 1.59 seconds adrift of winners Japan.
Having won more medals and golds than any other Dutch Olympian, Wüst is not yet contemplating retirement. Setting out her future objectives in March 2018, she said: “I’ve never held the 3,000m or 1,500m world record, but with the World Allround Championships coming up in Calgary in 2019 and the World Single Distance Championships in Salt Lake City in 2020, I’ve got two great opportunities to finally do that.”