GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Perhaps more than anyone else, Esmee Visser proved just how good the Dutch really are at speedskating.
A near non-factor at national level who was elbowed out of the team by an array of stars until Christmas, the Olympic rookie skated away with a gold medal only two months later.
Visser had the race of her life Friday in winning the 5,000 meters to give the overpowering Dutch a sixth gold medal in seven events at the Olympic Oval. Crimson-faced as she crossed the finish line, she beat two-time defending champion Martina Sablikova by more than a second. Russian skater Natalia Voronina took bronze.
Further back in eighth place was three-time 5,000-meter Olympic champion Claudia Pechstein, the German who is almost 46 – more than double Visser’s age of 22.
Visser came into the competition after an uneasy sleep was made lighter by a dream that she was celebrating at the Holland Heineken House, where all the Dutch medalists have been feted every night so far at the Olympics.
“My dream didn’t make out whether it was just for a medal, or for gold,” Visser said.
It’s gold now, and it’s not a dream anymore.
Visser was hardly a factor in international skating until she qualified for the Dutch squad late in December. At the time, she still had to figure out exactly when the Pyeongchang Games would be.
She then got a big boost by winning her first 3,000 gold medal at a depleted European championships. Some experts started thinking that an Olympic bronze would be within her reach.
In South Korea, Visser’s attitude was as lighthearted as her frame is slight. Although powerful legs usually drive long-distance skaters, Visser weighs only 51 kilograms (112 pounds), the lightest of all favorites in the race.
“I’m just very efficient,” she said.
Visser had a slow start Friday but found her groove and clawed back into contention halfway through. Then she kept her flowing movement going, seemingly floating over the ice while some others ploughed through it.
Increasingly turning red with effort, Visser won in 6 minutes, 50.23 seconds, holding off the charging Sablikova by 1.62 seconds.
Pechstein, who has won three titles over the distance and was still in great form this season, was seeking to become the oldest woman to win a Winter Olympic title. She is also the youngest to the win the 5,000, 17 days younger than Visser is now. But she faded to eighth place, 15.20 seconds behind the winner.
The German great isn’t through yet, though. She’ll be looking for another shot at Olympic gold at the 2022 Beijing Games.
“Yeah, why not?” said Pechstein, who won that first gold medal in the 5,000 at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. “I don’t think about my age.”