Ted-Jan Bloemen was ready for the 5,000 metres. And then it all fell apart
What happens when you break, and you don’t know why? Ted-Jan Bloemen thought he could win an Olympic medal and then he deflated like a balloon, lap after lap, even as he tried harder, before it began to hurt. It was a mystery. The 35-year-old had won silver in this 5,000-metre race four years ago, barely. The pandemic rattled his sense of routine, leaving him unmoored, and he admitted that.
But coming in, he felt good. He looked good.
Then came the breaking. When it was over Bloemen skated up to his coach, Bart Schouten, and neither of them had an answer. Bloemen thought he might have a 6:06 in him. He produced a 6:19.11. He finished 10th. He was asked how he would fix it before his defence of his 10,000-metre gold in five days.
“I don’t know yet,” said Bloemen. “I didn’t plan for this.”
It was so strange. Schouten said Bloemen was sick for 2 1/2 weeks in January, but never tested positive for COVID-19. But his test races were good, his body and fitness were good. In the final pair, Sweden’s Nils van der Poel closed with two absolutely stunning laps to make up a nearly two-second deficit and win by half a second. It was the performance of an athlete who had more than he needed in the tank, and it was thrilling to watch. The Swede won gold in an Olympic-record 6:08.84. Before the race, Bloemen thought he could do better than that.
He had the fastest time through three laps, and then in the fourth something happened. Long-track speedskating may be as close as any sport gets to Zen: You can try too hard and falter, and you cannot try hard enough and lag, and the perfect race is a combination of balance and pace, some mathematical equation expressed as locomotion. Bloemen lost it.
“It’s always a fine line between skating technically well and finding the right effort,” said Schouten. “So you never want to hold back from skating technically well and you want to hold back on effort, and sometimes you’ll hold back on technique and you never find your rhythm, you never find your race. And that’s what I think happened a little bit today.
“The physiological testing we’re doing in the background, heart rate and all those things, looked really, really good,” he said, “even better than in Pyeongchang four years ago. So there were no indications from our physiologist and psychologist, and from us as coaches.
“I think we were all a little bit bewildered. We did see him lose his skating position and his technique in the fourth lap, and that was a little early; that’s not normal for him.
“We’re sort of searching a little, too. We did not see this coming.”
So now the Olympic champion needs to figure out if he is still an Olympic champion, and can find that peace.
“The good thing about Ted is, he’s always believed in himself,” said Schouten. “Even in the Netherlands when he got kicked out of team after team, he believed in himself, and he tried to find a different way to become better and bring out what he believed he had inside himself.”
“So now you’re five days to the 10,000 metres. It is not a lot of time, but Ted has this strange belief in himself.”
The 10,000 was Bloemen’s race in Pyeongchang. The great Sven Kramer was the favourite, but Bloemen laid down a near-perfect race and Kramer was the one who fell apart lap by lap, bleeding out. Kramer is here, but after back surgery last year, at age 35, he is nowhere near his pre-pandemic peak. He may never race an Olympic 5,000 again. Kramer finished one spot ahead of Bloemen.
Bloemen is 35, and like Kramer has had a child in the last three years, and neither man may get to another Games. His gold medal in Pyeongchang was a validation after never quite fitting into the gladiator academy of Dutch speedskating. Maybe nothing can be better than that.
But Ted-Jan Bloemen has five days to see what he is made of. What happens when you break, and you don’t know why? You find out.