The Netherlands’ Ireen Wüst made all kinds of history at the Beijing Olympics on Monday, when she became the first athlete ever to win an individual gold medal at five Olympics. The speedskater’s win in the 1,500 meters sets her apart from greats such as Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis.
Wüst was just 19 when she won her first gold, at the Turin Olympics of 2006. After her latest win, she declared it to be “just bizarre” that she has kept on winning gold every four years.
“There’s something magical that gets to me when it comes down to the Games,” she said. “There’s something that brings out the best in me.”
It’s her sixth gold out of 12 medals overall, for a speedskater like no other.
In a nail-bitingly close 1500-meter race, Wüst’s winning time of 1:53.28 also set a new Olympic record. It was just enough to best Japan’s Miho Takagi — the world-record holder in the event — who finished in 1:53.72.
Wüst, 35, is intent on retiring after the Beijing Games. But she dismisses the idea that she might be getting too old to compete — a point she emphatically drove home at Beijing’s National Speed Skating Oval, a.k.a. The Ice Ribbon.
“Age is just a number. It’s just about how you feel. I’m not thinking like, ‘I’m 35, I’m too old,’ hell no,” she said. After feeling good all week, she added, “To then have a race like this one is just incredible. I just have no words for it.”
Wüst said it will take time to fully realize what she’s accomplished.
“It’s really hard to describe,” she said. “A lot of emotions, especially the good ones. I don’t realize it yet. It’s insane, actually.”
Even before Monday’s 1500-meter race began, Wüst had already established herself as the most decorated Olympic speedskater of all time. And when the gun sounded, she set a blazing pace, showing the power and efficiency that has propelled her record-shattering career.
“When skating, you reach 55 km/h [about 34 mph] on a thin blade a few millimeters wide,” Wüst told Univé magazine in 2020. “It’s such a beautiful, complex movement. I enjoy the challenge to perfect that and keep breaking new barriers. I have yet to skate the perfect race.”
Wüst’s coach, Gerard van Velde, says Monday’s race is among her top performances.
“It’s one of the best 1500m races she ever skated, and again she does it when it really counts,” he said. “That’s a gift, and that’s why she’s the greatest Olympian in the Netherlands.”
It’s a rare asset, van Velde added, for a skater to keep their composure while facing enormous pressure in a race. Wüst needed little coaching, he said, because she resisted the urge to rush her technique late in the race.
This story first appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.