Ireen Wüst, Speedskating Legend, Enters Her Fifth Straight Olympics

The considered the chocolate bar nonetheless makes Ireen Wüst smile.

The reminiscence is about 20 years previous, courting to one of many first days Wüst spent as a member of the Dutch junior nationwide speedskating group. The group had assembled for an extended bicycle journey, the type of punishing coaching speedskaters use to construct endurance. Trying round, Wüst got here to the belief — to her confusion, at first, after which her horror — that everybody had introduced packs of specialised power gels to gasoline them for the exercise.

Wüst had introduced a Snickers.

“All of them laughed at me,” she stated in a current interview. “I needed to study some classes actual fast.”

Wüst was, even then, a phenom. By age 19 she was an Olympic champion, too, having gained a shock gold medal within the 3,000 meters (and a bronze medal within the 1,500) on the 2006 Winter Video games in Turin, Italy.

But at the same time as she collected win after win, she was admittedly nonetheless studying tips on how to be an expert skater. She was inconsistent, her coaches recall, a roiling twister of uncooked prowess and bodily presents, her path forward unsure.

“She was a younger lady, profitable races, however not precisely understanding what she was doing or how she was doing it,” stated Gerard Kemkers, Wüst’s first skilled coach.

Wüst, 35, tells the story of the chocolate bar to emphasise how far she has come, to assist delineate the distinction in sports activities between expertise and professionalism. The previous, when athletes are younger and spry, can carry them to success, however solely to a degree. The latter is one thing they study, one thing for which they have to sacrifice.

With each, and in abundance, they will start to dream of getting the résumé Wüst has compiled: 5 Olympic gold medals, collected over 4 Winter Video games, with an opportunity this month in Beijing — the place she is going to compete within the 1,500 and 1,000-meter and group pursuit occasions — so as to add to that complete.

In some methods, the story of Wüst is the story of Dutch speedskating. The nation is the dominant power within the sport, winners of 42 of the 192 gold medals awarded in Olympic historical past. With 11 Olympic medals, Wüst is essentially the most adorned speedskater within the historical past of the Winter Video games. That makes her a star in her skating-mad nation, the place half a dozen commercially sponsored groups assist dozens of women and men as full-time skilled skaters, a system with no parallel wherever else.

Extra compelling, although, could also be how Wüst has succeeded despite the Dutch system. The nation has solely gotten stronger in recent times, with skaters from the Netherlands having gained half the 78 potential medals on the previous two Winter Olympics. The nationwide trials there are sometimes seen as extra cutthroat, and tougher to win, than the Olympics themselves. But dealing with these unrelenting waves of latest expertise, Wüst has by no means been swept away, all whereas staving off the obstacles — getting old, accidents, familial duties, restlessness, boredom — that topple different athletes over time.

With Wüst’s countryman Sven Kramer, maybe essentially the most dominant males’s speedskater of all time, additionally collaborating in his fifth Olympics, the 2022 Video games will mark the tip of an period.

“He’s the king of speedskating,” Wüst stated of Kramer, whose 9 profession medals are surpassed solely by her personal complete, “and I’m perhaps just a little bit the queen.”

How spectacular is that this type of longevity? Earlier than the 2022 Olympics, there have been roughly 143,000 Olympians in historical past, based on the historian Invoice Mallon. (The exact determine is unknown, as there are 100 or so athletes from the earliest Video games who can’t be recognized.) Of these athletes, 813 of them — or about 0.6 % — have competed in 5 or extra Video games.

“If she needs one thing, she works for it till she falls down,” stated Peter Kolder, who coached Wüst with the junior nationwide group. “I name it a tough head. I don’t know a variety of athletes who’ve that.”

Some issues did come naturally to Wüst. She remembers, for instance, her first time on velocity skates. She was 10 years previous and had begged her father to purchase her a pair. When he did, lastly, she laced them up, stepped out onto a frozen canal and, to her father’s shock, skated easily away. She and her father skated about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) that day, listening to their blades scrape the ice, feeling the smolder in her legs. She was hooked.

“It was one thing magical taking place to me,” she stated.

Two and a half many years later she is essentially the most profitable Dutch Olympian of all time. After her two medals in 2006 got here a second gold in 2010, two golds and three silvers in 2014, and a gold and two silvers in 2018. (Her most treasured medal, she stated, is her gold within the 1,500 on the 2020 world championships, which she gained solely weeks after watching her greatest buddy and former teammate, Pauline van Deutekom, die of lung cancer.)

Above all else, coaches and teammates reward Wüst’s psychological fortitude, a high quality essential to managing the big-picture struggles of an extended profession and the inward torment of anyone race.

It could be one of many Noble Truths of the Winter Video games: speedskating is struggling.

Skaters spend a number of minutes squatting like frogs, their higher our bodies bent parallel to the bottom, as in the event that they have been scouring the ice for a misplaced contact lens. Wüst laughed when requested to explain the ache of the 1,500-meter occasion. “Discover the tallest constructing in New York, go into the steps and go all out for 2 minutes,” she stated. “That’s just a little little bit of what we expertise.”

If you’re fortunate, skaters say, you would possibly ooze right into a type of meditative state, the place you are feeling the ache however should not careworn by it, the place your limbs are pushing and swaying in easy concord and the place, maybe, your thoughts is in any other case pleasantly clean. However such experiences are mystically uncommon. Agony, for essentially the most half, is inevitable.

“Individuals who can stay with the ache the most effective, overcome that ache, neglect the ache, they’re going to win,” stated Carl Verheijen, a former skater who’s the chief de mission for the Netherlands this 12 months. Wüst, he added, excels at this.

In the end, speedskating is straightforward. Athletes skate in a loop. The quickest time wins.

Wüst generally imagines her physique, then, as a System 1 racecar, and as her profession has progressed, she has develop into more and more fascinated by the concept that each little factor she does to it, whether or not sleeping or consuming or exercising, may have a measurable influence on her velocity. “There are such a lot of buttons you’ll be able to push,” she stated.

Now, within the closing months of her profession, she stage-manages her days to the minute — get up on the identical time, work out on the identical time, a nap on daily basis from 1 p.m. to three p.m. — to get rid of variables that may nudge her off beam.

She misses household gatherings, places components of her life on maintain. (She and her associate, the skater Letitia de Jong, have rescheduled their marriage ceremony 4 occasions, largely due to the pandemic. They goal to marry this summer time.) And her meals are nutritionally purposeful — in different phrases, no extra large Snickers bars.

“It’s brutal, and it’s wonderful,” Desly Hill, certainly one of Wüst’s coaches, stated about her routines and self-imposed guidelines. “She’s like a robotic programmed to get to the Olympic Video games and win.”

But Wüst will not be robotic — removed from it. Somewhat, she usually appears pushed by emotion.

She is the kind of athlete, as an illustration, who competes with a chip on her shoulder, who invents battle if none exists. She stated she talks to herself earlier than each race, telling herself there is no such thing as a one pretty much as good as her.

“She may make herself hate her opponent in a race — actually hate that particular person — after which neglect that after the race,” stated Geert Kuiper, certainly one of Wüst’s coaches at her first skilled group. “However she would use that emotion to win.”

Each season, Wüst’s mom compiles reams of stories clippings inside a recent binder. These volumes reside, overstuffed, in Wüst’s residence, and he or she appears to have a photographic reminiscence of each slight contained in them.

“I believe each season there’s at the least one article of, ‘Wüst is completed’ or ‘Wüst ought to stop,’” she stated.

Typically, such messages come from even her personal group. Days after the 2018 Olympics, Wüst’s skilled group dropped her, telling her, basically, that she was too previous to suit their plans for the following Olympic cycle.

And so, naturally, Wüst has stored going, more durable than earlier than, extra disciplined than ever, embracing the rigor, the ache and the routine.

“I needed to point out the world I wasn’t too previous,” she stated. “Who says I’m too previous?” activities/olympics/ireen-wust-speedskating-dutch.html Ireen Wüst, Speedskating Legend, Enters Her Fifth Straight Olympics

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