The speed skating competition at the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games exploded into life with gold medals for Yamamoto Yudai (JPN) and Isabel Grevelt (NED) in the men’s and women's 500m races.
Yamamoto, a 17-year-old from Hokkaido, carved across the finish line on the spectacular St. Moritz Speed Skating Oval in 36.42 seconds, ahead of silver medallist Nil Llop Izquierdo (ESP), and Xue Zhiwen (CHN) in third. Grevelt took gold in 40.57, followed home 0.5 seconds later by Wang Jingyi (CHN) and Yoshida Yukino (JPN).
“I knew I had to finish under 41 seconds,” said the 17-year-old, who won the Dutch 500m junior B title in 2018/19. “I have done in the past, so I was hoping for it, but I was still really nervous. I am normally always the last one to start and now I had to race before a lot of other athletes. So I had to wait for some time but it feels fantastic to win gold.”
Yamamoto’s victory in the men’s event proved bittersweet. In the final race between Pavel Taran (RUS) and Sebas Diniz (NED), the highly regarded 17-year-old from Netherlands tumbled to the ice, handing Japan a first-place finish in the final rankings.
“I’m very happy, but also sad,” said Yamamoto. “Sebas is very fast. This is my first time skating on a lake. I think it was very difficult because there were cracks in it. But it was not a problem for me.”
Yamamoto was not alone in having to manage an unfamiliar environment. Built into the ice on Lake St. Moritz, the natural track made life difficult for a field of athletes more used to racing across the perfect surface of an artificial course.
“It was really hard,” said Julie Berg Sjoebrend (NOR), who finished 27th in a field of 32 athletes. “I fell in a hole in the ice. That was embarrassing and I was kind of afraid [afterwards]. It affected my confidence a little bit, so I tried to block it out. But I’ve loved being here on the lake in the morning, seeing the sun come over the mountains.”
For men’s bronze medallist Xue, a deep scar on his cheek served as a reminder that speed skating is a high-velocity sport in which cuts and bruises are an occupational hazard.
“I used to be a short track skater and injured my face,” he said. “The skater in front of me fell on the ice and the blade slashed me. Today I just did my normal training and did my best to win the medal. I will tell my parents and celebrate because it’s a very good start to the year. But tomorrow I will be focused on the 1500m.”