Havard Lorentzen sits in late 2020 as the reigning Olympic 500m speed skating champion, a World Sprint Championship gold medallist and a nine-time World Cup winner, but even now the 28-year-old believes none of it would have been possible without going through the toughest of times.
“The doctors couldn’t say with 100 per cent certainty that I would be able to skate again. That was a hard message to get,” Lorentzen said.
The Norwegian was sitting on a hospital bed in his hometown of Bergen in late 2015 when he received the devastating news. The promising young athlete had done what every skater – and indeed spectator – fears the most.
“It was during a training interval in south Germany – tempo training, so hard skating with pretty high speed. I think I stepped on something on the ice, my left skate just went away under me and I hit the pads on the outside of the corner in a not-so-good way. Usually you want to lift your legs up high so you avoid [the possibility] that the blade can hit the other leg, so there is not so much force. But I ended up cutting my right calf on the inside pretty bad with my left skate,” he explained.
“The skin was just hanging off my calf when I looked down. It wasn’t a very pleasant sight.”
After emergency surgery in Germany, Lorentzen flew home. But things got worse.
“I went to the doctor for a check-up. The skin on my leg was black, it had died,” Lorentzen continued, thankfully now able to laugh at the grisly details. “They [the doctors in Germany] had just stitched the skin back on that was cut off but it didn’t survive. I had to go to the local hospital in Bergen and they helped me do a plastic surgery where they take skin from a different part of the body and put it on the injury.”
As he neatly puts it, he then simply had to “wait for the body to heal”. Given he was unable to walk for weeks, it was not a simple process for a young man used to doing everything at pace. But everything began to change for the better.
First of all, Lorentzen found his priorities sharpening.
“It helped me be even more focused on important details like sleep, nutrition,” he said. “And being more focused on my training than I had been before because I needed to come back quicker and in good shape.”
Once it became clear that the doctors were wrong and Lorentzen would make a full recovery, he began to benefit in an entirely unexpected but hugely significant way.
“I felt less afraid on the ice,” he said. “I am not sure why. I think it is because I knew if I crashed what kind of consequences there were, now that I had experienced them. It was bad of course, but not something I couldn’t live with.”
This new Lorentzen was a different prospect on and, perhaps just as crucially, off the ice. His 2016/17 season finished with overall silver at the World Sprint Speed Skating Championships. It was a result that pushed the restless youngster to return after just a week off to begin training anew, even while most of his peers were sunning themselves somewhere.
“Eager to be as strong as possible”, Lorentzen applied himself with such vigour that he set a personal best in the first test race of the 2017/18 season. But then disaster struck again. Four days after skating faster than he had ever done before he fell off his bike and broke his wrist.
This time, however, he knew how to handle a setback.
“The body needed to heal my wrist but from my experience two years earlier it was easier to handle. I kept calm and did my training,” he said. “And when we came to the first World Cup, five or six weeks after I broke my wrist, I won my first World Cup.”
It was the start of a magical period. More World Cup titles followed and then he landed in PyeongChang. Racing in the 500m final against Ronald Mulder, whose twin brother Michel had led home a Dutch clean sweep in the blue riband event at the previous Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, Lorentzen not only blew away the most feared nation in speed skating, he also put a dagger through the hearts of the home crowd.
“It was special because two pairs earlier I thought the roof was going to fall off when the Korean guy [Cha Min-Kyu] skated an Olympic record, the crowd went absolutely bananas,” said Lorentzen, who flew to a time of 34.41 seconds, 0.01 seconds better than the home town hero.
“It was a good feeling, but different when a crowd goes silent after a great race,” the gold medal-winner laughed.
The roles were reversed in the 1000m: Lorentzen just missed out on the gold, with Dutchman Kjeld Nuis pipping him by four hundredths of a second. But given Lorentzen had become the first Norwegian to win the Olympic 500m title in 70 years, and indeed the first Norwegian to win any Olympic speed skating gold in 20 years, he was not complaining.
With a taste for record-setting, the skater has no intention of stopping any time soon. Overall world sprint champion in 2018, Lorentzen took silver in the 500m at the World Single Distance Championships in 2019, and has his sights set firmly on Beijing 2022. This season might be a strange one, but he will be ready to defend his Olympic title, no matter what. After all, the fastest man on ice is a pretty cool title to tell the grandchildren about.
“To do it on the shortest and fastest event that is probably the hardest distance to win is amazing,” he said. “It’s something I am going to be really proud of when I look back at my career.”