It was pretty hard to get on a plane last week to fly to Europe and race. My post-Olympic brain and body were exhausted and it seemed the last thing I wanted to do was pack up and leave my cozy home behind, again. But this is what we do, it’s part of the deal and when the Olympics end, the show goes on. It was marginally comforting to know that many other winter sport teams faced similar international treks to continue with World Cup competitions around the globe.
Our team ended up back in Heerenveen, Netherlands. We come here a lot. In the twelve or so years I’ve been racing on the ‘circuit’ I have raced in the Thialf ice rink at least 24 times, probably more. That is a lot of rain, a lot of cheese, and a whole lot of racing. I’ve paid homage to the Dutch and their crazy skating ways in a previous post (The Dutch are Alright) and thankfully they stayed true to form this past weekend for the World Cup Final.
There are a lot of ghostly, tired looking faces around the rink these days, including mine. Most of the skaters who competed at the Olympics in Vancouver look a little empty, gaunt, listless even. The quiet, almost somber, energy in the warming up area next to the rink is a stark contrast to the intense, competitive and wired energy we experienced here in the fall. The anticipation of the Olympics has melted away leaving only a small puddle of motivation left for us to mop up. If we were racing anywhere else in the world right now, I think many skaters wouldn’t even bother showing up. But we are in Thialf and people here love speed skating, they love racing and they love us. All of us. No matter what. And that makes racing here fun regardless of how tired or drained or spent I feel.
I held the lead in World Cup points for the 1500m which fueled my motivation to race well in that event on Saturday. Having arrived only the Tuesday before, I raced the 3000m on Friday and used it as preparation for the 1500m. Not really at my best or worst, I managed the usual 4th place in the 3000m, and ended up 4th overall in that distance. Somehow on Saturday I eked out a win in the 1500m, just a tenth ahead of Czech skater Martina Sablikova, and came away with my third overall 1500m World Cup title. I wish I could say it was a great race, but it wasn’t. I lamented my lack of speed in the opening lap and poor last corner. It seems I wasn’t the only one who felt that way – everyone’s times across the board were much slower than at the World Cup here last fall. But, a win is a win is a win and I was psyched to win the overall!
Then on Sunday we put together one of our best team pursuit races of the year. With a new combo of Britt, Cindy and myself, we worked incredibly well together in the race for the win and took the World Cup title as well. It was the first time in a while I felt I had honest to goodness FUN in a team pursuit. It didn’t erase the sting of our Olympic failure so much as remind us of what we could/should/would have done, but, a win is a win is a win and we were psyched to win the overall!
In typical Dutch fashion, all overall World Cup title winners were treated to a lap of honour in the back of a convertible sports car. Most of the fans stuck around to cheer us on. I got to take the lap in the back of an electric car! What a treat! Things in the world are looking up – three years ago for the same event we sat on the back of big, muscly, motor-trikes and the diesel fumes had me almost passing out. Zero-emissions victory laps are the way to go!
Farewell to the Spoon
In Heerenveen, during flood breaks between races, they will often interview a skater or coach in the centre of the rink and broadcast it to the crowd. One of my favourites from this past weekend was the interview they did with retiring Canadian speed skating legend, Jeremy Wotherspoon. Unfortunately a bizarre infection on his leg prevented Jeremy from his aim of racing on the weekend and finishing his career in Heerenveen. It would have been a nice way to finish as he is so well loved and appreciated here.
While we were getting ready to race the team pursuit we were able to listen to his interview. When he announced to the crowd that he was retiring from skating, the host translated his response into Dutch and the crowd let out a collective cry of disappointment and dismay upon learning the news that he will not race again. A poignant moment for Jeremy – to feel such appreciation for his accomplishments.
Highly regarded among most as the best speed skater of all time, he is much loved and admired in the Netherlands. His flawless technique, 67 World Cup victories, 500m world record, 4 World Sprint Championship titles, 13 overall World Cup titles, and Olympic silver medal from 1998 are unmatched by any. To those who criticize his lack of Olympic gold, I say – stick a sock in it. For your viewing pleasure: the fastest 500m ever skated, commentary in Dutch. I wish you could appreciate how easy he makes this look, and how hard it actually is. He just floats across the ice…
Groves clinches 1500m crown – Randy Starkman, The Toronto Star
Canadian women skate to World Cup titles – Associated Press
Retirement not easy for Wotherspoon – The Canadian Press