Former Dutch skater wasn’t able to beat ex-teammate and speedskating legend Sven Kramer in men’s 5,000 metres, but his podium finish wouldn’t have been possible without the warm welcome he received in his adopted country, Bruce Arthur writes.
It was his dream, and it was slipping away. Ted-Jan Bloemen was first put on skates by his parents when he was two; his diminutive mother Gretha loved to skate, too. Her husband Gerhard, beaming with pride, says, “You should see her, when the lake is only frozen over for one night, and she steps on it and says, ‘Is it strong enough? It is strong enough.’ And she puts on her skates.”
On Sunday in Pyeongchang, their son was worried he was not strong enough. The Dutch-born Canadian held the world record in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in long-track speedskating, but he was starting to second guess a late high-altitude training camp, telling his coach that after four laps of the 5,000 final he was afraid it hurt him in the long run. He left the Netherlands and had blossomed in Canada since 2014, but Dutch champion Sven Kramer is a hard man in big moments. Bloemen was worried.
And then came the race, and it was, in the words of his coach, not his best. He went out too fast, then flagged: Bloemen had a rep for his mind wandering in the Netherlands, for not being a killer like Kramer. Suddenly Norway’s Sverre Lunde Pedersen had pulled ahead in their head to head, and was still ahead with one lap to go.
“After five or six laps, I think he really lost his position, his skating position, and he wasn’t skating as well as he should have,” said long-track coach and Dutch native Bart Schouten. “And we were very lucky that Pedersen came by, to give him a good pair to fight. But his response to that pair, I didn’t think he was fighting that much. I didn’t think his demeanour changed as much as it should have.”
But Bloemen dragged whatever he had left out of the shadows, and when they crossed the line he was two-one-thousandths of a second faster. He said, “I got everything out of myself that I had. I’m disappointed that I didn’t have more to give today.” He lost focus, or technique, and wasn’t quite in peak condition, and it was still the fastest he has ever been on a low-land rink by three seconds. No Canadian man had won a medal at this distance since 1932.
Then the great Kramer, owner of seven Olympic medals at age 31, beat Bloemen by almost two seconds for his fourth Olympic gold. Kramer is Bloemen’s age, and is a legend in the proud tradition of Dutch speedskating. Bloemen broke his records, but couldn’t beat him here.
“Well, I’m 31 years old now, and this is my first Olympic Games and I already won a medal at it,” said Bloemen. “It is really big and I’m really proud, and grateful for the great team that I have around me.”
In the Netherlands, Bloemen bounced on and off the national team — “I think mostly due to his own behaviour,” said Schouten — and he has credited a lot of his rise in Canada to the welcome he received here, the warmth, the belief. Bloemen was never the big man at home, and maybe he just needed to be believed in, to be loved. But he also needed to change.
“I think he grew up,” said Schouten. “He felt welcome, he felt at home immediately. His teammates were good, he got married, and I think the last four years he grew up as a skater. He’s told me, 10 years ago you wouldn’t have wanted to work with me, because I was uncoachable. So I think a lot of this is more about Ted, and how he’s grown up . . . Just the way he treated his teammates, the way you train, the way you live your lifestyle. So yeah, I think those are the biggest changes he had to make.”
“Yeah, I have for sure matured a lot over the years,” said Bloemen. “When I was younger I wasn’t your typical athlete, and I had a lot of problems with discipline, just living the right way for your sport, and giving up all the things for it.”
“He changed completely,” said his wife, Marlinde, who is also Dutch.
His mother admits that leaving Holland was heartbreaking for her son, but says Canada made that pain vanish. And as he crossed the line, and as it became clear he would win a medal, his mother and father and Marlinde hugged and held their hands to their mouths. Maybe deep inside, Bloemen wanted a gold to show the Netherlands what they lost, what not loving him the right way could bring. Maybe he felt like someone returning to the high school reunion successful and handsome, and found his rival was more of both, still.
But Ted-Jan Bloemen was losing the race of his life and he was strong enough, just strong enough. After all this time, he became what he always thought he could be, and his wife and mom and dad tried not to cry.
“He finally got there,” said his father, wearing Canada red and Netherlands orange. “I’m so happy for him.”
“A dream come true,” said his mother, wearing Dutch and Canadian colours. “A dream come true.”
“I think he finally, he — he kept believing in himself, and this is the proof that he did good by going to Canada,” said Marlinde, clutching a Canadian flag. “That he kept believing in himself. This is the moment where he can say, I did it.”
“He is loved by everybody. And he is still himself.”