12 February to 12 February: Ireen Wüst’s 12-year rise to the pinnacle of Olympic speed skating

Every great story at the Olympic Winter Games has to start somewhere. And for Ireen Wüst, the most decorated speed skater in Olympic history, the story began in Turin, at the Lingotto Oval on 12 February 2006, in what was her first ever appearance on the Olympic stage. Twelve years to the day later, she won her fifth title in PyeongChang!

Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Speed skater Ireen Wüst was born in Goirle (North Brabant, Netherlands) on 1 April 1986. An all-round junior world champion in 2005, with victories in the 1,000m and 1,500m in Seinäjoki (Finland), she lit up the Dutch National Championships, which were serving as trials for the Turin Winter Games, in December of the same year. The 19-year-old won the 1,000m, 1,500m and 3,000m at the Championships, securing a place at the Games for all three distances.

On Sunday 12 February 2006, she lined up in her first ever Olympic event, the 3,000m. She set off in the 10th pair with Austria’s Anna Rokita. Wüst had already left her opponent in her wake after the first lap and continued to increase her pace, eventually beating Rokita by more than 10 seconds. More importantly, with 4:02.43, Wüst clocked the fastest overall time.    

Two of her main rivals, compatriot Renate Groenewold and Canada’s Cindy Klassen, raced as the 12th pair, battling it out for a podium spot over seven-and-a-half laps. Ultimately, Groenewold came up short on Wüst’s time by 1.05 seconds and took silver. Klassen clinched bronze after finishing 1.94 seconds behind Wüst.     

With her victory, Wüst became the youngest Dutch champion in the history of the Olympic Winter Games. After going on to win bronze in the 1,500m and claim fourth place in the 1,000m, she was voted female athlete of the year in her country. “Winning in Turin in 2006 was amazing,” recalled Wüst a few years later. “I'd never won anything before and there I was, in my first Olympic race, winning the gold. Even when I watch it today, I still can't believe what I did. It was an incredible feeling.”  

Ireen Wüst
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Titles galore

Turin 2006 marked the start of a remarkable career on the ice for Wüst: she became all-round world champion in Heerenveen (Netherlands) in 2007; won silver in Berlin in 2008; took gold in the 1,000m and 1,500m at the 2007 World Single Distance Championships in Salt Lake City; topped the podium in the team pursuit in Nagano in 2008; and claimed victory in the European All-Round Speed Skating Championships in Kolomna (Russia) in 2008. She showed her golden touch again at the Richmond Olympic Oval in Vancouver on 21 February 2010, edging out Canada’s Kristina Groves by 0.25 seconds in the 1,500m to win her second Olympic title.      

Wüst continued to add to her collection of world titles in the lead-up to Sochi 2014, regaining the all-round crown in 2011, 2012 and 2013, claiming the 1,500m and 3,000m titles in 2011 and 2013, and winning the team pursuit title in 2013. The World Single Distance Championships were held in the Adler Arena in Sochi, one year out from the Winter Olympics.  

The Dutch were utterly dominant when they returned to Sochi for the Winter Games between 8 and 23 February 2014, amassing 23 medals in all, eight of them gold. Wüst contributed more than anyone to that overall total, regaining the 3,000m title before landing silvers in the 1,000m, 1,500m and 5,000m. She then teamed up with Marrit Leenstra and Jorien ter Mors to smash the Olympic team pursuit record, winning gold ahead of runners-up Poland by a margin of more than seven seconds. With five medals in all, Wüst was the most decorated athlete at the XXII Olympic Winter Games.

Ireen Wüst
Picture by 2006 Getty Images

Anniversary marked with gold medal on 12 February 2018

Over the course of the next three years, Wüst fought out an intense rivalry with three-time Olympic champion Martina Sáblíková of the Czech Republic, the skater who beat her to Olympic 5,000m gold at Sochi 2014. Sáblíková also got the better of the Dutch skater at the World All-Round Speed Skating Championships in Calgary in 2015, and again in Berlin a year later. But in March 2017 in Hamar (Norway), Wüst collected her sixth world all-round title and her first since 2014, edging out Sáblíková by a mere 0.64 seconds over the four distances, and was also a key part of the victorious Dutch pursuit team at the World Single Distance Championships. The 2017 edition took place in February at the Gangneung Oval, where Wüst would return a year later for the PyeongChang Winter Games.

In her fourth Winter Olympics, the Netherlands’ most decorated Olympian had to settle for silver in her first event, the 3,000m, on 10 February 2018, failing to defend her title against team-mate Carlijn Achtereekte, who beat her by 0.08 seconds. But two days later, she skated to victory in the 1,500m, finishing 0.20 seconds ahead of Japan’s Miho Takagi to become the first female athlete to win four medals in the same event at the Winter Games.   

Beijing 2022 in her sights

“The bigger the race, the more able I am to get the most out of myself,” said Wüst after the event. “The big races get me more excited than World Cup events. I love skating when it really counts. I never feel scared. I just love it. It's incredible. I realised two days ago when I was second in the 3,000m that the 1,500m [would] be on February 12. Exactly 12 years ago, that was the day that I won my first gold medal in Turin. I had a dream to win medals at each Olympics. Now I’ve achieved that dream and it’s an incredible feeling. The tension was really high. Saturday I was disappointed. Silver is really good, but gold is the only one for me. Now I have achieved [it], I don’t have the words!”

Aged 31, Wüst took her Olympic medal haul to 11 with silver in the team pursuit, an event in which the Dutch skaters lost out to Japan. Her overall medal count stands at five golds, five silvers and one bronze, making her the most decorated Olympic speed skater of all time and the most decorated Dutch athlete in the history of the Olympic Games.Wüst, who has decided to continue competing until the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, won her fourth world 1,500m title at the World Single Distance Championships in Inzell (Germany) in February 2019 – her 13th title and her 24th medal in total. She now has her mind set on breaking the world record in the distance at what will be her fifth Winter Olympics. Who knows, the Beijing programme might even see her achieve further success on 12 February…