Of course Irene Schouten likes her Dutch titles in the 3,000 meters, 5,000 meters and mass start. And of course she is thrilled with her sharp track records. After winning each title, she drives a lap of honor through Thialf with a fluttering red-white-blue flag in her hands, and throws kisses to the reasonably filled stands with a red face. She climbs the highest step of the podium with a hop and a wide grin.
She had not foreseen the success coming, said Schouten on Sunday evening after the last of her titles, the one at the mass start. Her team had just come out of a tough training period, and coach Jillert Anema had warned her: you are not going to drive very fast. The fact that it turned out to be a weekend with super times surprised her and made her winning races all the more beautiful.
And yet: as beautiful as the three new national titles are, this is not the point, she says in the same breath. Jillert said: ‘There is nothing to gain here’. I’m going to enjoy this for a while, but then the focus will be on the Olympic qualifying tournament.”
With the Winter Games in Beijing approaching – the celebrations start on February 4 – everything this season is dominated by Olympic success. The Dutch National Championships, this weekend in Heerenveen, were no more than an amuse-bouche in the multi-course dinner that should eventually lead to two main courses: the Olympic qualifying tournament (OKT) in December in Thialf, and the Olympic skating competitions in the Ice Ribbon in the Chinese capital.
No guarantee of success
The NK distances do not exactly guarantee success at the Games. Take Rhian Ket, who became the national champion in the 1,500 meters twelve years ago. In Vancouver he was not there, after a ninth place in the OKT.
It also happens the other way around: four years ago, Carlijn Achtereekte and Esmee Visser were fourth in the 3,000 meters and fifth in the 5,000 meters respectively at the NK distances. More than three months later they were Olympic champions.
But a national title is a nice start to the Olympic season, say the new champions with their gold medals around their necks. “It is beautiful. We have all trained to be able to drive fast”, said Antoinette de Jong after her lightning-fast race in the 1,500 meters (1.53.20), which only left her a tenth above the track record of Ireen Wüst.
In the same race, six women dived under 1.55, a time they had become national champions a year ago. The last of that list, Marijke Groenewoud, was left with nothing this year – only the first five are allowed to go to the World Cup competitions. De Jong: „Everyone wants to ride the World Cups. That way you ensure that your run-up to the Games is good.”
The level at the Dutch Championships was high this year, partly thanks to good ice and favorable weather conditions. Schouten drove the track records from the books on the longest two distances, Jutta Leerdam set a new top time in the 1,000 meters. Many personal bests were lost, and in the men’s 1,000 meters something similar occurred as in the women’s 1,500 meters: no fewer than four men dived under the time with which they had become champions last year.
Many skaters have a different preparation than usual because of the Games. “I have never been so good so early in the season,” said Kai Verbij, who became Dutch champion in both the 500 and 1,000 meters.
For Patrick Roest it took some getting used to that he was not in absolute top form this weekend. After failing to peak at the World Championship distances in three dominant seasons, he is following a training schedule this year, which means that he must be top during the OKT and later the Olympic Games.
That he was defeated by Jorrit Bergsma in the 5,000 meters was somewhat surprising. Roest: „You always ride to win, so it’s not like I took it easy this weekend. But there’s nothing more to it than this right now. Of course that is difficult, but you have to accept that. The big goal is later this year, which certainly helps to put this result into perspective.”
The World Cup competitions form a series of starters in the Olympic menu. The races in successively Tomaszów Mazowiecki (Poland), Stavanger (Norway), Salt Lake City (US) and Calgary (Canada) play an important role for the preparations of the skaters as well as for the Dutch Olympic team.
Also read: Jorien ter Mors: ‘I notice that I have a lot of energy left. Also just to enjoy’
During the series of international competitions, the Dutch must earn tickets for the Games, a maximum of nine per gender per country. This weekend they slipped by in the colors of their brand teams, soon they will wear orange-blue skating suits on behalf of the Netherlands. To ensure that the maximum possible number of skaters can wear those suits in China, the KNSB skating association has asked all qualified riders to participate in at least three of the four World Cups.
Qualification for the World Cups
For most skaters during the NK distances it was not necessarily about the title, but about placing for the World Cups. “It was important for me to qualify,” said Dai Dai N’tab, who qualified in fourth place in the 500 meters. “That’s good for your race rhythm.”
Sven Kramer narrowly qualified for the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, as the number five on the shorter of those two distances. “It’s nice that you can drive a few competitions at international level.” The fact that he will probably have to ride in the B-group because he is the last Dutchman in line, didn’t seem to bother him much. “Apparently that is my level at the moment.”
The big winners of the weekend came, in addition to the double titles for Verbij and Jutta Leerdam (both in the 500 and 1,000 meters), from Team Zaanlander, the team of Jillert Anema. In addition to the titles and track records of Schouten, Jorrit Bergsma also achieved the double in the long distances. The fact that Bergsma also ran a marathon in Enschede on Saturday evening – something Schouten also wanted to do, but she couldn’t because she finished the 3,000 meters too late on Saturday – apparently didn’t bother him and his results.
Bergsma said he was in exceptionally good shape this weekend. He called the NK “perhaps my best race weekend ever”, but, like Schouten, he was aware of the fact that the really important competitions are yet to come. “I am very happy with these titles, they are always special. But I shouldn’t get too satisfied and keep my head up. The big goals are later in the season. So today I can enjoy it for a while, but tomorrow the switch will be turned again.”
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