GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Ted-Jan Bloemen had minutes ago completed the race he describes as causing “full-body hurt” and he was plunked down on the blue padding that lines the Olympic oval, and while the greatest speed skater in history glided past him, tears rolled down Bloemen’s cheeks.
He shook his head and he put his hands over his face. He had done it.
At his sport’s most excruciating distance, Bloemen skated to an Olympic record en route to a gold medal, Canada’s fourth of these Games, and no doubt the most painful anyone in this country has earned here, with all due respect to moguls and curling and figure skating. This 10,000-metre race is so taxing that Bloemen spends at least half of it “fighting thoughts,” he says, like “Am I going to make it to the finish line?”
He did, and as he watched four-time Olympic gold medallist Sven Kramer with six laps to go in the final pairing — the Dutchman had never won this race at the Winter Games, and has said it’s the one he wanted most — Bloemen realized that Kramer didn’t have it in him.
“It’s just a really slow realization throughout that last pair that I was going to be Olympic champion,” Bloemen said, later, wearing his Team Canada toque and black Canada sweat pants over those enormous legs. “It’s incredible.”
It was incredible to watch Bloemen pull it off. He is now the Olympic champion. He’s added the Olympic record to the world record he set in the distance back in 2015. He’s added a gold to the silver he won earlier in the week at 5,000 m.
The plan on Day 6 was to not go out too hard, to save something for the end, for laps 24 and 25, because he’d gone out too fast in his previous race. Well, Bloemen led the marathon distance from start to finish. Through the first half, he looked comfortable and in control, like he was out for a casual Sunday stroll. His consistency was incredible, with no lap after his first coming in slower than 30 seconds.
With a couple to go, he posted his fastest yet at 29.86 seconds. When Bloemen powered himself across the finish line, he shifted his sunglasses up and looked at the clock and threw both of his arms into the air. A record time of 12:39.77.
He looked up at the ceiling with tears in his eyes, and then he held out his arms like he was flying. Bloemen kept skating gingerly on the exhausted legs that had just carried him for 25 mostly painful laps, until he took a seat on that blue padding and realized his time was going to hold up. Watching Kramer race, he said, with a laugh, “took a long time.”
Bloemen’s race was not only perfectly executed — it was also clutch. Just before his skate, he’d seen the reigning Olympic champion, Jorritt Bergsma, set an Olympic record, which thanks to Bloemen would last for only about 13 minutes. But it couldn’t have been easy, mentally, for the Canadian to see that 12:41.98 effort come in seconds before his own race.
As his coach, Bart Schouten explains it, “it looked like there was hardly any room in that race to beat him.” But he gave Bloemen the thumbs up right after, and Bloemen nodded back.
Then he went out there and had the race of his life in the biggest pressure-cooker in his sport.
“I really have to compliment him on staying calm,” Schouten said.
Schouten tried to stay calm, too. Unlike in the 5,000 m, the coach didn’t yell much while Bloemen was skating, only saying things like “good” and “very good” after each lap. He clenched his fists a few times so Bloemen would feel strong.
“I didn’t have much to say today,” the coach said. “He did it.”
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He noticed the tears running down Bloemen’s face while Kramer was still skating. Schouten gave Bloemen a minute, then he walked over and gave him a hug, and both men cried together.
Schouten told him something poetic, like, “You did it, dude.” And then the second Kramer crossed the line, in sixth place — he’d later call his race “pretty bad,” which is an understatement considering his dominance — Bloemen got a Canadian flag and he began his victory lap, that flag flying behind him.
When he got off the plane in Calgary four years ago, Bloemen didn’t know this moment was ahead. The former Dutch national-team member had moved to Canada because he needed a fresh start and figured there would be opportunity in his dad’s birth country.
“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,” Bloemen said. “I had to find a different way to do it because I found I kind of hit a wall in my career. I found that different way and I got way more than I ever would have hoped.”
The Bloemen of today is different from the man who first arrived in Calgary. By all accounts he has a better attitude, and he’s a much more disciplined athlete — even a better teammate.
“He needs to feel accepted and part of something,” Schouten explained. “When he found it in Canada I think that was the seed.”
The seed to becoming an Olympic champion and putting up a record that’s good in the books for the next four years, minimum. And he beat the great Sven Kramer, to boot.
If you know anything about speed skating in Holland, you know this race will be looked upon as a national tragedy, like Canada losing a gold medal hockey game.
“It’s huge,” said Schouten, who’s also Dutch. “I think [Kramer] was the unbeatable guy, and Ted just beat him.”
After the race, Kramer shook Bloemen’s hand.
“For respect,” the Dutchman said.
Anybody that enters this race deserves respect, truly. There were just 12 skaters in the field on Thursday, perhaps because most don’t want to put themselves through the agony. Bloemen once explained the 10,000-m distance this way: “You’re racing against the clock and everything has to be perfect, from start to finish.”
As he stood there grinning, the Olympic champion said he’d grinded this one out.
“It was a hard race, it was tough. I stuck to my plan and it was enough,” he added. “It was perfect.”