Speed ​​skating legend Ireen Wüst participates in his fifth consecutive Olympics


The thought of the chocolate bar still makes Ireen Wüst smile.

The memory goes back around two decades, tracing back to one of Wüst’s first days as a member of the Dutch national junior speed skating team. The group had gathered for a long bike ride, the kind of punitive training that speed skaters use to build endurance. Looking around, Wüst realized – with her confusion at first, and then her horror – that everyone had brought packs of specialized energy gels to fuel them for training.

Wüst had brought a Snickers.

“They all laughed at me,” he said in a recent interview. “I had to learn some lessons very quickly.”

Wüst was, even then, a phenomenon. At the age of 19 she was also an Olympic champion, having won a surprise gold medal in 3,000 meters (and a bronze medal in 1,500 meters) at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

Yet even as she reaped win after win, she was still learning how to become a professional figure skater. She was inconsistent, her coaches remind her, a murky tornado of sheer skill and physical gifts, her uncertain path.

“She was a young girl, she was winning races, but she didn’t know exactly what she was doing or how she was doing it,” said Gerard Kemkers, Wüst’s first professional coach.

Wüst, 35, tells the story of the chocolate bar to underline how far it has come, to help draw the difference in sport between talent and professionalism. The former, when the athletes are young and lively, can lead them to success, but only up to a certain point. The latter is something they learn, something they have to sacrifice for.

With both, and in abundance, they can start dreaming of having the resume that Wüst has compiled: five Olympic gold medals, collected in four Winter Games, with a chance this month in Beijing – where she will compete in the 1,500 and 1,000 meters and the team pursuit events, to be added to that total.

In a sense, the history of Wüst is the history of Dutch speed skating. The country is the dominant force in sport, winner of 42 of the 192 gold medals awarded in Olympic history. With 11 Olympic medals, Wüst is the most decorated speed skater in the history of the Winter Games. This makes her a celebrity in her skating-mad country, where half a dozen commercially sponsored teams support dozens of men and women as full-time professional skaters, a system that is unmatched anywhere else.

More compelling, however, may be how Wüst has been successful despite the Dutch system. The country has only gotten stronger in recent years, with Dutch skaters winning half of the 78 possible medals in the last two Winter Olympics. National trials are often seen as more merciless and harder to win than the Olympics themselves. Yet in the face of these incessant waves of new talent, Wüst was never wiped out, all while he avoided the obstacles – aging, injuries, family duties, restlessness, boredom – that over time cause other athletes to fall.

With Wüst compatriot Sven Kramer, perhaps the most dominant male speed skater of all time, also taking part in his fifth Olympics, the 2022 Games will mark the end of an era.

“He’s the king of speed skating,” said Wüst of Kramer, whose nine career medals are only surpassed by his total, “and maybe I’m a bit queen.”

How impressive is this type of longevity? Before the 2022 Olympics, there were about 143,000 Olympians in history, according to historian Bill Mallon. (The exact figure is unknown, as there are about 100 athletes from the early Games who cannot be identified.) Of these athletes, 813 of them – or about 0.6 percent – competed in five or more Games.

“If he wants something, he works on it until he falls,” said Peter Kolder, who coached Wüst with the youth team. “I call it a hard head. I don’t know many athletes who have it ”.

Some things came naturally to Wüst. He remembers, for example, his first time on speed skates. He was 10 and had begged his father to buy him a pair. When he did, finally, she buckled them up, she stepped out onto a frozen canal and, to her father’s surprise, she walked away smoothly. She and her father skated about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) that day, listening to their blades scrape the ice, feeling smoke in their legs. She was hooked.

“It was something magical that happened to me,” he said.

Two and a half decades later she is the most successful Dutch Olympian of all time. After his two medals in 2006 came a second gold in 2010, two golds and three silvers in 2014 and one gold and two silvers in 2018. (His most valuable medal, he said, is gold in the 1,500 at the championships world 2020, which she won just weeks after seeing her best friend and former teammate, Pauline van Deutekom, die of lung cancer.)

Especially coaches and teammates praise Wüst’s mental strength, a key quality to manage the struggles of the big picture of a long career and the inner torment of every race.

It could be one of the Noble Truths of the Winter Games: Speed ​​skating is suffering.

Skaters spend several minutes squatting like frogs, their upper body bent parallel to the ground, as if rubbing the ice in search of a lost contact lens. Wüst laughed when asked to describe the pain of the 1,500-meter event. “Find the tallest building in New York, go up the stairs and go out for two minutes,” he said. “This is a little bit what we experience.”

If you’re lucky, skaters say, you may exude some kind of meditative state, where you feel the pain but are not stressed by it, where your limbs push and sway in harmony effortlessly and where, perhaps, your mind is otherwise. pleasantly empty. But such experiences are mystically rare. Agony, for the most part, is inevitable.

“People who can live better with pain, get over that pain, forget the pain, will win,” said Carl Verheijen, a former figure skater who is the mission chief for the Netherlands this year. Wüst, he added, excels at this.

Ultimately, speed skating is simple. Athletes skate in loops. The best time wins.

Wüst sometimes imagines her body, therefore, as a Formula 1 racing car, and as her career progresses, she has become more and more fascinated by the idea that every little thing she does to him, whether it’s sleeping, eating or exercising may have a measurable impact on your speed. “There are so many buttons you can press,” she said.

Now, in the last months of her career, she manages her days down to the minute – wake up at the same time, workout at the same time, nap every day from 1pm to 3pm – to eliminate variables that could push her off course.

She misses family reunions, puts elements of her life on hold. (She and her partner, figure skater Letitia de Jong, have rescheduled their marriage four times, largely due to the pandemic. They aim to get married this summer.) And her meals serve a nutritional purpose, in other words, no bigger Snickers bars.

“It’s brutal and it’s incredible,” said Desly Hill, one of Wüst’s coaches, of his routines and self-imposed rules. “It’s like a robot programmed to get to the Olympic Games and win.”

Yet Wüst is not robotic, far from it. Rather, she often seems emotionally driven.

He is the type of athlete, for example, who competes with a splinter on his shoulder, who invents conflict if it does not exist. She said that she speaks for herself before each competition, telling herself that there is no one as good as she is.

“He could force himself to hate his opponent in a game – really hate that person – and then forget him after the game,” said Geert Kuiper, one of Wüst’s coaches on his first professional team. “But he would use that emotion to win.”

Each season, Wüst’s mother collects reams of news clippings into a new binder. These volumes reside, padded, in the house of Wüst, and she seems to have a photographic memory of every minimum contained in them.

“I think every season there is at least one article of ‘Wüst is done’ or ‘Wüst should stop’,” he said.

Sometimes, such messages also come from his own team. Days after the 2018 Olympics, Wüst’s professional team left her, essentially telling her that she was too old to fit into their plans for the next Olympic cycle.

And so, of course, Wüst moved on, harder than before, more disciplined than ever, embracing rigor, pain and routine.

“I wanted to show the world that I wasn’t too old,” she said. “Who says I’m too old?”