In the past few days I experienced two extraordinary events in the Netherlands:
1) The absolute and final conclusion of The Longest Season of All Time, and
2) Two full days of 100% blue skies and glorious sunshine.
Re. 1) If you thought that the World Cup final was the end of the road this season, well, you’d be wrong. In fact, the weekend following the World Cup final was the last competition of the year: the World All-Round Championships. Psych! Because it was an Olympic year, and let’s face it, because the Dutch are simply omnipotent within the speed skating world, the season-ending schedule had us race two weekends in a row in Heerenveen. And, if you thought that the fans couldn’t get any more fanatical about watching speed skating, well, you’d be wrong about that too.
I’m not going lie, spending two weeks at the same hotel, eating the same food, and enduring the same eternal rain, at the end of the seemingly ceaseless Longest Season of All Time, got old pretty fast. The sleepy little town of Wolvega does not lend itself to much beyond a few shops, some little cafes and a lot of vast, empty farmer’s fields. So I sat around a lot, contemplating life and thinking deep thoughts. Read: I was bored out of my mind! I pretty much walked around with a sign on my forehead that said ‘get me outta here!’
Thankfully, there was one thing that saved me from completely falling off the wagon. It seemed that whenever I stepped onto the ice for a training session, or a race, all of that just melted away and I simply enjoyed myself so much. The Olympic-ness of everything quickly faded away and every moment that I skated I was reminded of how fun skating is, how much I love it and how good it feels when I do it right. No matter how calm and relaxed and focused I was this season, the anticipation and intensity of the Olympic Games, while absolutely wonderful, occasionally overshadowed the simplicity of what I do.
During the days leading up to the World All-Round Championships the more normal, scaled-down jitters emerged and I felt nervous and strangely excited to race. I did not expect to feel this way, thinking that I had likely used it all up by now, but it came back. On the last day of racing, as I stepped onto the ice for warm-up, a former Dutch skater who now works as a TV commentator, said to me, “So, can you find a little bit more? Is there some left, maybe a tiny bit left in your little toe?” I laughed, “Yeah, I think there is some left in there, but I’m not sure about what’s left in here”, I said, pointing to my head.
Turns out, I had plenty. I skated two of my best races of the season that day, winning the 1500m and finishing second overall for the second year in a row. It was a little bit satisfying to hear the roaring crowd fade in the final stretch of the 1500m, as they realized that I would beat their Olympic Champion for the win. It was only a little bit satisfying because in my heart I was wishing it were the race I could have had precisely four weeks earlier.
As it turns out, no matter how exhausted and drained I told myself I was, or how taxing this Olympic season has been, I still had the capacity and will to race hard and race well. After crossing the line in my final race of the season, the 5000m, I thought I would feel relieved and thankful that it was over. Instead, I actually felt a little bit sad, sad that I wouldn’t be feeling that excitement to race for a long while. It was a feeling that left me wanting more, and that surprised me.
I know one day this will end, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet. Maybe the miracle last weekend wasn’t that The Longest Season of All Time finally ended, maybe it was that I strangely didn’t want it to end, and that the thought of skating again makes my stomach flip upside down – in a good way.
Re. 2) Every time I’m in the Netherlands it basically rains 24/7. There are occasional glimpses of blue sky, and periodically the rain will let up for a few moments or a few hours. Even though it rains a lot, for training I will often ride my bike outside anyways, to get out of the stuffy hotel for some fresh air. The network of small roads and bike paths is endless and fun to explore but I usually have to put my bike in the bathtub after such rides to give it a good cleaning. Over the many years I have raced here I did not think it was possible to experience anything other than continuous rain.
After the end of The Longest Season of All Time I had the great pleasure of visiting with some friends in Den Haag for two days. They took me to some famous and quintessentially Dutch places: to the beautiful, old windmills at Zanse Schaans, to the spectacular (albeit not quite blooming yet) flower gardens at Keukenhoff and to the colossal, global flower auction in Alsmeer. We also went for a bike ride and I went shopping downtown. The miraculous thing about those two days was that there was uninterrupted blue sky and continuous real live sunshine. I’d heard that the sun could shine in the Netherlands, but I never quite believed it. It was just beautiful.
One of the things that clouds any thoughts I have of continuing to race for another year or two, or more, is the constant travel. Another year of traveling to the same hotels, eating the same food, and racing at the same rinks is a little tiresome to consider. Twelve years of it has taken its toll. But then the sun came out and it felt so good. In the end, perhaps the miracle is not that the sun came out, but instead that it is the latest memory I have of the Netherlands and that it actually makes me want to go back again – in a good way.