While the rest of the Netherlands was enjoying the Christmas dinner, the women and men who had to become skaters if necessary stepped alone in the white light of the Thialf theater for the tournament they had been dreading for months.
In better times they had felt supported by stands full of family, friends and fans. Now they stood there on their irons, looking for something to hold on to in a vacuumed skating hall in Heerenveen, while outside it drizzled incessantly towards the end of the year. Nauseously nervous at times, convinced that the rides they had to do would become key moments in their careers, regardless of the outcome. Zero margin of error. Everything to lose, nothing to gain.
There were nine places to be allocated per sex, for many more toppers. This resulted in a selection order, a performance matrix. In the skating country of the Netherlands, the bar is golden. Hundredths of a second made dreams come true or burst like soap bubbles. It was all part of the Olympic qualifying tournament. Six questions about the OKT.
1 How was he dominant?
Skating association KNSB had a lot of confidence in one rider: Irene Schouten, based on the selection order. The first three places in the matrix were perfect for her: the 5,000 metres, mass start and the 3,000 metres. For a year and a half she has been virtually unbeatable on the long distances, and she also wins mass starts and marathons more often than not.
Schouten made it happen: she won the two distances convincingly. What she said after her three-kilometer ride was indicative of her confidence: “I knew I didn’t have to ride my ideal stage to win here.”
In the medium distances, Antoinette de Jong showed that she can easily get three individual medals in China. By winning the 1,500 meters and finishing second in the 3,000 and 1,000 meters, De Jong skated into the matrix three times. “This is the best possible scenario,” she said. With her speed and content she is the engine of the team pursuit, which Schouten will also end up in.
2 Who will be the Olympic debutants?
You would almost forget that Jutta Leerdam, who just turned 23, has never competed in the Olympics. At the beginning of last year, she surprisingly took the world title in the 1,000 meters. Two months ago, when she won the 500 and 1,000 meters at the NK distances and finished third in the 1,500 meters, she was crowned queen of national speed skating in one fell swoop.
She seems easy to deal with with that status. On Boxing Day she won the 1,000 meters, two days later she was second in the 500 meters. That was behind that other debutante, Femke Kok (21), who after a disappointment in the 1,000 meters did what she had to do in the 500 meters. Kok had suffered from the tension, she said. Leerdam thought it all went well. Everyone just made it big.
It is not yet scarred by past results. Four years ago, Thomas Krol had placed third in the 1,000 meters for the Pyeongchang Games when the selection committee of the KNSB left him at home and Kai Verbij, injured during the OKT, gave him a spot. This time, despite a cold, Krol left no doubts; two days later, after a personal best in the 500 meters, he won the 1,000 meters, the strongest number of the tournament. He thought it was a “nice sequel” to four years ago. And he was also in a class of his own in the 1,500, together with Kjeld Nuis. Krol narrowly finished second.
Hein Otterspeer used bigger words to get his first Olympic starting permit. “This is a childhood dream for an old man,” he said emotionally on Wednesday evening after his second place in the 1,000 meters. Nine days before his race he suffered a groin injury, but after years of bad luck that did not stop him from a top performance.
Also beautiful was the surprise on the face of Merijn Scheperkamp, the 21-year-old biology student who on Monday evening stayed ahead of seasoned men like Dai Dai N’tab in the 500 meters. Scheperkamp is sure to qualify for the Games and embodies a new generation of top skaters.
This also includes Marijke Groenewoud (22), the Frisian woman who was in quarantine two weeks ago with a corona infection, had to keep fit on an exercise bike, and placed third on Wednesday evening for the 1,500 meters. She has a good chance of being selected for the mass start.
The last debutants could be Dai Dai N’tab, second in the 500 meters, Sanne in ‘t Hof, second in the 5,000 meters, and Tijmen Snel, third in the 1,500 meters. But they are not yet sure of an Olympic ticket.
3 Why is it not yet clear who will be allowed to go to the Games?
That has to do with the tickets that can be distributed for the team pursuit and the mass start. Although all races have been held and the matrix with the selection order has been completed, national coach Jan Coopmans may argue with the skating association on Thursday evening with whom he thinks the chance of gold in those parts is greatest. After that, the KNSB determines who will be appointed. The skating association can appoint a maximum of three skaters who have not qualified on an individual distance. That would be at the expense of skaters who have done so. The final selection will be announced on January 2nd.
With the men it becomes a difficult puzzle. Because Nuis and Snel entered the matrix on Thursday in the 1,500 meters, it now contains the names of ten men. And then the selections for the team pursuit and mass start are not yet complete. In the team pursuit, in addition to Patrick Roest and Sven Kramer, two more names have to be added. One could be Jorrit Bergsma, but he left the team in Sochi in 2014 because he felt left out. Kramer was also on that team. At the mass start, national coach Jan Coopmans will argue for someone besides Bergsma. It is inevitable that two or more skaters will be severely disappointed.
For the women’s selection, the solution is less difficult. Nine women skated in the matrix. Among them three who belong to the selection for the team pursuit: Irene Schouten, Antoinette de Jong and Ireen Wüst. Carlijn Achtereekte, who will probably be able to defend her Olympic title in the 3,000 meters, can also be used. At the mass start, national coach Coopmans can choose Groenewoud, reigning world champion in this part, alongside Irene Schouten, who is almost certain of her place. She drove herself in the 1,500 meters in the matrix.
4 Are Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst just back?
Yes, the two skating greats, together good for twenty Olympic medals (nine of which are gold), can both prepare for their fifth Olympic appearance. Kramer has to wait a little longer before his ticket can be definitively booked.
That Kramer was able to qualify was a surprise, after a year in which he struggled with back problems and recovered from surgery. But when he had to, he was there again and rode to third place in the 5,000 meters, the distance at which he is the reigning Olympic champion. While that ranking is low in the matrix, Kramer seems sure of his place as he is also an important part of the team pursuit. He himself is counting on it, he said confidently after his race on Sunday. “I don’t have the final verdict, but I think it’s plausible.”
For Wüst, her placement in the 1,500 meters does not come as a surprise. Earlier this season, she finished second in that distance during the World Cup in Stavanger. Still, she was tense, she said with relief afterwards. “It seems to get more exciting every OCT. But I’m there.”
5 Who are the big losers?
Four years ago Jorien ter Mors became the first woman to win medals at one Winter Games in two disciplines, long track speed skating and short track speed skating, but she will not be there in Beijing. In May, Ter Mors lost her sister, and “another dubious year is too much,” she said on Wednesday. The body did not want what her head told her to do, she did not qualify for the 1,000 and 1,500 meters, distances at which she was already an Olympic champion. Knowing that it might be her last chance to go to the Games again, she said: “My body is not a robot. I don’t rule out giving up skating.”
The other reigning Olympic champion, Kjeld Nuis (32), drove the same time in the 1,000 meters to the nearest hundredth as four years ago. Then he easily qualified for his first Games, a month and a half later he also became Olympic champion. Now he was fourth, the first loser. He cried, slept badly, but recovered on the last day of the OKT at the other distance on which he won gold four years ago: the 1,500 meters. Based on this season, he has less chance of gold on that number. “But I’m going to work hard in the near future.”
Esmee Visser, the best over 5,000 meters in South Korea four years ago, did not qualify for the Winter Games. She had actually not even been able to skate, had been struggling with a hamstring injury since Tuesday after a fall in training, but wanted to try it anyway. She wanted to show to herself and others that she is back on track after mental health issues. It wasn’t supposed to be.
6 What can the Dutch do at the Beijing Olympics?
Data supplier Gracenote made a prediction about the medal level in China in November based on results. In it, the Dutch long track skaters get fifteen medals, including seven gold medals.
In recent weeks, the technical heart of the KNSB wondered whether it would not smoke up the skaters with the stressful OKT. No, was the final verdict. After all, peaking at the right time is also asked of them at the Games. But it was striking that two months ago at the Dutch National Championships, skating was faster at many distances. Perhaps the enormous pressure has caused the somewhat lesser performance.
National coach Coopmans was not entirely satisfied with the level of his skaters. According to him, the sprint and the long positions still need to be stepped up. “The older guard is still a step too far from the international top. I hope the younger guard can still make progress. But there is still work to be done.”