GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb 15 (Reuters) - It took six speed skating events at the Gangneung Oval for the Dutch stranglehold on the podium’s top spot to be broken in South Korea, and the skater who did it was formerly one of their own.
Four years ago, long-distance specialist Ted-Jan Bloemen reached a crossroads after failing to qualify to represent the Netherlands at the Sochi Olympics.
The 31-year-old, who was born and raised in the Netherlands but is eligible to race for Canada through his father, made the decision to switch allegiances.
On Thursday, Bloemen set an Olympic record on his way to winning gold in the 10,000 metres and claimed Canada’s first individual title in an Olympic speed skating discipline in 34 years.
“Everything changed for me,” he said. “I went to a whole different country, different continent, different team around me, and different coach. I got married.
“There’s so many things that changed and if you add all that together it made for a really great combination where I’ve been feeling really happy and grateful.”
Bloemen’s decision proved to be an inspired one.
His career in the Netherlands was hanging by a thread due to doubts about his dedication and he spent years bouncing around from one professional speed skating team to another.
Unlike most countries, speed skating is not a niche sport in the Netherlands, and the astonishing Dutch supremacy on display in Korea is the product of a network of professional teams that allow skaters to race competitively through the year.
If anything, Bloemen is living proof that precisely because of the abundance of talent in the Netherlands the country’s system is - if only rarely - fallible and that late bloomers in the sport can sometimes slip through the cracks.
Bloemen’s story may have begun in Holland, but his resurgence was sparked and nurtured in Canada.
Faced with a far smaller talent pool than the Dutch, the Canadians have been forced to wring every last ounce of effort from the athletes they do have, and that suited Bloemen perfectly.
When he arrived at the Olympics, he did so as the world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres and he set both records after moving to Canada.
“I had a dream and I always felt from deep inside that I was able to do something special on the ice, but I was never able to show it,” he said. “I found that different way and I got way more than I ever would have hoped.”
“I’m really grateful for the team that I have around me. I’m a really happy person and I’ve been so for a long time.”
Bloemen served notice of his intentions when he claimed silver in the 5,000 metres on Tuesday behind Dutchman Sven Kramer. Two days later, he was an Olympic champion in the longest speed skating distance.
“Imagine that feeling,” he said. “It’s really, really incredible. It’s the biggest stage I’ve ever been on and to win here is the highest you can get.” (Reporting by Simon Jennings; Editing by Toby Davis)