Before the speed skating 5000m race, the Netherlands’ Irene Schouten — fresh off a gold in the 3000m — was feeling good. That was until she saw Canada’s Isabelle Weidemann, skating in the pair before hers, put up a time of 6:48:18.
A four-letter word popped into Schouten’s head, realizing she “had to be faster than 48.”
Then she went out and set an Olympic record with a time of 6:43.51, besting Weidemann’s second-place time by more than five seconds. It was Schouten’s second gold medal of the 2022 Winter Olympics, and her second Olympic record time.
"I feel really good,” Schouten said. “Two races, two golds. I’m so happy. You cannot be better.”
The 29-year-old Schouten, who followed up her back-to-back golds with a bronze medal in the team pursuit, has a chance to win a medal in all four of her events when she competes in the mass start on Friday.
All in the family
Schouten won bronze at the 2018 Winter Olympics in the mass start, though these Olympics have seen measurably more success. Just making it to the Olympics through a loaded Netherlands skating contingent was difficult.
“The qualification tournament may even be more important than the actual event,” Schouten said last year. “To qualify for the Olympics in the Netherlands, you really have to be good.”
She was really good. Schouten finished first in the 3000m, mass start and team pursuit at the European Championships last month. That followed wins in the 5000m and team pursuit at the World Single Distance Championships in 2021.
Schouten grew up in a family of skaters and began hitting the ice when she was 8. Her family would all take the bus once a week to the local skating club. Her brother, Simon, was the team pursuit European champion in 2018 and competed in the World Cup circuit for two seasons before retiring in 2019. Her niece, Kelly, has won a medal in the Multiple European Inline Skating Championship and three marathon races.
The first Olympics Schouten watched was the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, where she was enthralled by Dutchwoman Gretha Smit winning silver in the 5000m.
Like Schouten would do, Smit also competed in marathon and inline skating. Schouten was the relay world champion in 2012 in inline skating, and she’s been dominant on the Dutch marathon speed skating circuit with more than 40 wins and six national championships to her name.
'I Wanted This One'
Twenty years after watching her first Olympics, Schouten broke the 3000m record set by Germany’s Claudia Pechstein in Salt Lake City.
"When you say 20 years ago, the record stood a really long time,” Schouten said. “I am happy I have it now.”
Schouten said she was nervous before the race because she didn’t qualify for the 3000m in PyeongChang, and wanted to do well for both herself and the Netherlands.
“Four years ago I did not qualify, so I wanted this one,” Schouten said. “When I was young I had a big dream to win Olympic gold and now I have it.”
Schouten passed Italy’s Francesca Lollobrigida, who had the early lead in the race. Lollobrigida — who won silver — said she wanted to start fast to make Schouten nervous, but it didn't matter.
“Because I knew, seriously, she's the best,” Lollobrigida said of Schouten. “This silver medal is kind of gold for me."
Added Weidemann, who took the bronze: “Irene has been undefeated this year, so her winning the gold was expected.”
For all of Schouten’s accomplishments in the Netherlands and in Europe, she knew that winning at the Olympics is different. With the 3000m gold out of the way, Schouten felt less pressure in the 5000m.
“I have the Olympic gold, now I can just skate fast,” Schouten thought before the race. She even told her coach that she felt she was being too relaxed.
Perhaps Weidemann’s fast skate added a bit of pressure.
"I knew that if I wanted to win, I had to break the Olympic record,” Schouten said.
Schouten’s first three laps “weren’t great,” in her opinion, but she found her rhythm by the sixth lap. She knew she could slowly accelerate and build her speed. Over the last five laps, she “felt like I had the power.”
"This is something you work for for years,” Schouten said. “You work really hard and to be able to pull it off at the right moment is just amazing. I skated that (race) at the right moment.”
From a little girl following her family into skating to setting back-to-back Olympic records in consecutive events en route to two gold medals, Schouten is living a dream.
"These two Olympic gold medals are great and this is something no one will ever take away from me,” Schouten said.