A rare and legendary speed skating race instilled in a young Ireen Wüst the determination that has made her the most successful Dutch Olympian in history. Fourteen years after winning her first gold as a teenager, she tells of the strength of will that keeps her at the top of her sport.
Ireen Wüst was just 10 years old when she witnessed the famous Dutch Elfstedentocht (‘11 Cities Tour’) speed skating race. The event had not been held since two months before her birth, and weather conditions mean there has not been another one since. But the experience of seeing her father participate in 1997 captivated Wüst and helped to turn her into the Netherlands’ most decorated Olympian of all time.
The Elfstedentocht is held only when canals, rivers and lakes in the northern Netherlands freeze over sufficiently to allow participants to skate almost 200km past all 11 historical cities in the province of Friesland. Although it can be staged once every year, the elements combine in its favour so rarely that even a few days of sub-zero temperatures can trigger a national frenzy of anticipation.
Once the tour is announced it can begin within 48 hours, and in 1997 Wüst’s father was primed to make the most of his chance. His young daughter was smitten – and determined to prove herself in the sport.
“My father participated, and I was intrigued by speed skating,” she recalls. “I begged my parents to buy me skates and that winter we skated on natural ice a lot. I just loved the atmosphere.
“I went to the rink in Eindhoven with my father every Sunday morning. I skated in his draft and tried to copy his technique. He had been quite a good skater when he was young.”
It was soon clear that young Ireen was going to be exceptionally good. Leaving the ice one day, a man asked her name and when she told him, he replied: “I’m going to remember that name, because it will become famous one day.”
The fame was not easily won. The little girl joined a speed skating club, and training intensified as she matured as a teenager. But despite her best efforts, she despaired that success would elude her.
“I was a tiny kid. At age 15 a lot of girls have grown a lot already, but I hadn't and most of my peers were bigger and stronger than me. My coaches kept telling that as long as I just kept skating good technically, I would automatically grow stronger and go faster.”
Displaying a singular focus for which she would become renowned, Wüst followed instructions and soon reaped the rewards.
“I got into a special training group, got an invitation for the regional selection and eventually got into the Dutch national junior team when I was 16,” she said. “For me, that was really something. I would go shopping in my national team jacket, I was so proud.
“I entered the team as a shy girl, but I learned quickly. The first year I already qualified for the European and Allround World Championships together with Sven Kramer [who would also go on to be a multiple Olympic champion].
“I finished fourth overall at the Europeans and fifth at the Worlds, I could hardly believe it.”
Despite having soared so quickly to the top of international speed skating, Wüst did not dare dream of the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, a year away in 2006.
“I thought that if everything would go well, I'd be ready for the Olympic Games in Vancouver four years later.”
Over the summer she moved from the national junior team to a Dutch professional team.
“I signed a three-year deal and they did not want to put any pressure on me. They told me not to worry about results, but I was eager.
“At the beginning of the season I over-trained. I wanted to do the same as, for example, [teammate] Renate Groenewold, but that was ridiculous. She was 10 years my senior and had 10 years more training under her belt.”
Coach Gerard Kemkers took the fatigued youngster out of the training programme and she only got back on the ice at the Dutch national championships, where she faced a simple equation.
“To qualify in any event for the Olympic Games in Turin, I had to win that particular event,” she explained.
She went on to win the 1000m, the 1500m and the 3000m.
“From that moment on there was this gigantic positive flow.”
In Turin, at the age of 19, Wüst won the 3000m title to become the youngest ever Dutch Olympic champion, and she added a bronze in the 1500m.
“I had always looked up to Olympic champions. Then I won the Olympic title myself on 12 February 2006 and when I woke up on the 13th, I remember thinking, 'I'm still the same person I was yesterday',” she said.
“But that changed when I got home. All of a sudden everyone knows you and everyone wants something. I had to get used to that and I had to get used to saying no. It's just impossible to satisfy everyone.”
Although more titles quickly followed, her propensity to over-train meant Wüst endured two disappointing seasons prior to the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. But she rose to the challenge again to claim the 1500m title “through sheer willpower”.
That determination helped secure two golds and three silvers at Sochi 2014, while at PyeongChang she climbed the podium again to boost her career Olympic tally to five golds, five silvers and a bronze.
She has just added a 20th world title as she continues to dominate the sport 14 years on from her Turin triumph. It is a remarkable testament to the unshakeable willpower of that little girl, smaller than her peers but technically better equipped, who was told that once she grew stronger physically, everything would fall into place.
“That has strengthened my conviction that when you set out on a particular path, and you always keep doing the right things, when you have the patience and the faith, that eventually things will come your way,” she said.
“As long as I have even a mere one per cent of faith that I'm going to succeed, it's enough to build upon.”