A Skating Legend Powered by Slights, Real and Perceived

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

The memory is about two decades old, dating to one of the first days Wüst spent as a member of the Dutch junior national speedskating team. The group had assembled for a long bicycle ride, the sort of punishing training speedskaters use to build endurance. Looking around, Wüst came to the realization — to her confusion, at first, and then her horror — that everyone had brought packs of specialized energy gels to fuel them for the workout.

Wüst had brought a Snickers.

“They all laughed at me,” she said in a recent interview. “I had to learn some lessons real quick.”

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

Yet even as she collected win after win, she was admittedly still learning how to be a professional skater. She was inconsistent, her coaches recall, a roiling tornado of raw prowess and physical gifts, her path ahead uncertain.

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

“He’s the king of speedskating,” Wüst said of her teammate Sven Kramer, looming over one of her workouts in Heerenveen, “and I’m maybe a little bit the queen.”Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Wüst, 35, tells the story of the chocolate bar to emphasize how far she has come, to help delineate the difference in sports between talent and professionalism. The former, when athletes are young and spry, can carry them to success, but only to a point. The latter is something they learn, something for which they must sacrifice.

With both, and in abundance, they can begin to dream of having the résumé Wüst has compiled: five Olympic gold medals, collected over four Winter Games, with a chance this month in Beijing — where she will compete in the 1,500 and 1,000-meter and team pursuit events — to add to that total.

In some ways, the story of Wüst is the story of Dutch speedskating. The country is the dominant force in the sport, winners of 42 of the 192 gold medals awarded in Olympic history. With 11 Olympic medals, Wüst is the most decorated speedskater in the history of the Winter Games. That 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 with no parallel anywhere else.

More compelling, though, may be how Wüst has succeeded in spite of the Dutch system. The country has only gotten stronger in recent years, with skaters from the Netherlands having won half the 78 possible medals at the past two Winter Olympics. The national trials there are often seen as more cutthroat, and more difficult to win, than the Olympics themselves. Yet facing these unrelenting waves of new talent, Wüst has never been swept away, all while staving off the obstacles — aging, injuries, familial duties, restlessness, boredom — that topple other athletes over time.

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With Wüst’s countryman Sven Kramer, perhaps the most dominant men’s speedskater of all time, also participating in his fifth Olympics, the 2022 Games will mark the end of an era.

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

How impressive is this sort of longevity? Before the 2022 Olympics, there were approximately 143,000 Olympians in history, according to the historian Bill Mallon. (The precise figure is unknown, as there are 100 or so athletes from the earliest Games who cannot be identified.) Of those athletes, 813 of them — or about 0.6 percent — have competed in five or more Games.

Wüst, who has a record 11 Olympic medals, plans to skate in three events in Beijing.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

“If she wants something, she works for it until she falls down,” said Peter Kolder, who coached Wüst with the junior national team. “I call it a hard head. I don’t know a lot of athletes who have that.”

Some things did come naturally to Wüst. She remembers, for example, her first time on speed skates. She was 10 years old and had begged her father to buy her a pair. When he did, finally, she laced them up, stepped out onto a frozen canal and, to her father’s surprise, skated smoothly 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 something magical happening to me,” she said.

Two and a half decades later she is the most successful Dutch Olympian of all time. After her two medals in 2006 came 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 said, is her gold in the 1,500 at the 2020 world championships, which she won only weeks after watching her best friend and former teammate, Pauline van Deutekom, die of lung cancer.)

Above all else, coaches and teammates praise Wüst’s mental fortitude, a quality crucial to managing the big-picture struggles of a long career and the inward torment of any one race.

It may well be one of the Noble Truths of the Winter Games: speedskating is suffering.

Skaters spend several minutes squatting like frogs, their upper bodies bent parallel to the ground, as if they were scouring the ice for 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 into the stairs and go all out for two minutes,” she said. “That’s a little bit of what we experience.”

“If she wants something, she works for it until she falls down,” a former coach said of Wüst.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

If you are lucky, skaters say, you might ooze into a sort of meditative state, where you feel the pain but are not stressed by it, where your limbs are pushing and swaying in effortless harmony and where, perhaps, your mind is otherwise pleasantly blank. But such experiences are mystically rare. Agony, for the most part, is inevitable.

“People who can live with the pain the best, overcome that pain, forget the pain, they’re going to win,” said Carl Verheijen, a former skater who is the chief de mission for the Netherlands this year. Wüst, he added, excels at this.

Ultimately, speedskating is simple. Athletes skate in a loop. The fastest time wins.

Wüst sometimes imagines her body, then, as a Formula 1 racecar, and as her career has progressed, she has become increasingly fascinated by the idea that every little thing she does to it, whether sleeping or eating or exercising, could have a measurable impact on her speed. “There are so many buttons you can push,” she said.

Now, in the final months of her career, she stage-manages her days to the minute — wake up at the same time, work out at the same time, a nap every day from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. — to eliminate variables that might nudge her off course.

She misses family gatherings, puts elements of her life on hold. (She and her partner, the skater Letitia de Jong, have rescheduled their wedding four times, in large part because of the pandemic. They aim to marry this summer.) And her meals are nutritionally purposeful — in other words, no more big Snickers bars.

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

The Netherlands is the dominant force in Olympic speedskating, winners of 42 of the 192 gold medals awarded. Wüst has five of them.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Yet Wüst is not robotic — far from it. Rather, she often seems driven by emotion.

She is the type of athlete, for instance, who competes with a chip on her shoulder, who invents conflict if none exists. She said she talks to herself before every race, telling herself there is no one as good as her.

“She could make herself hate her opponent in a race — really hate that person — and then forget that after the race,” said Geert Kuiper, one of Wüst’s coaches at her first professional team. “But she would use that emotion to win.”

Every season, Wüst’s mother compiles reams of news clippings inside a fresh binder. These volumes reside, overstuffed, in Wüst’s home, and she seems to have a photographic memory of every slight contained in them.

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

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

And so, naturally, Wüst has kept going, harder than before, more disciplined than ever, embracing the rigor, the pain and the routine.

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

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