Modern Dutch Heroes: Ireen Wüst

The Winter Olympics in Beijing ended on 20 February this year and, as with every Olympic, there were records broken, superstars born and those special moments that can only be called ‘Olympic moments’, and all of it with the backdrop of the corona virus (albeit the tail end of the lockdown-worthy Omicron variant). And as with many games – summer or winter – there are the favourites from each sport and each country. For the Netherlands in the winter Olympics, the favourite sport  is indisputably speed skating.

Anyone who has spent any time in the Netherlands knows that skating is almost like biking: everyone does it to the point that its almost a part of the actual DNA. I remember that during the first really cold winter I was here (January-February 2021) I asked my very Dutch landlady if she and her family went skating when her children were young. She looked at me bewildered and said directly, ‘Of course!’ She found it more unusual that I didn’t skate! (I did not grow up in a place in the US where skating was popular.)

With its flat geography, shallow canals and lakes, and winters that are well below zero for the (typically) five days needed, it’s no surprise that speed skating on the ice is so popular here. Reaching far beyond a fun winter activity, the Dutch have become masters of competitive speed skating and since the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo have dominated all disciplines within the sport. There have been dozens of Dutch Olympic champions, some of whom have stood proudly with gold medals around their necks as the national anthem (the Wilhelmus) played. But only a few athletes have truly risen to the standing of a Modern Dutch Hero, among them the unbelievable speed skater Ireen Wüst.

A native of North Brabant – one of the southerly provinces, including Eindhoven, Breda and Den Bosch – Ireen Wüst began skating, like most Dutch people, at a very early age. At age 18 she made her national debut at the Dutch Single Distance Championships and at age 19 made her Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Turin, where she won the first of many Olympic gold medals. She was the youngest Dutch Olympic champion ever and was also named Dutch Sports Personality of the Year – an honour she would again receive in 2014. Since then, Ireen Wüst has become the most successful Dutch speed skater in history and the only Olympic athlete from any country in any sport at either the Summer or Winter to win gold medals in five consecutive Games. She has done what no other athlete – even Michael Phelps! – has been able to do, making her one of the greatest athletes of all times.

Upon returning home to the Netherlands, after her last Winter Games in Beijing, Ireen, along with the entire national Dutch skating team, were honored in the Ridderzaal, part of the 13th-century government complex Binnenhof, by Mark Rutte. For her outstanding performances at five Olympics and her national and international speed skating wins, records and medals, Ireen Wüst was honored with one of the highest national honours in the Netherlands: Commander in the Order of Orange-Nassau – the highest civilian honour ever given to a Dutch athlete.

The Winter Games in Beijing had many other superstars, including another highly decorated speed skater: Sven Kramer, who has won as much as Ireen in national, European, world and Olympic competitions. This season was the last for the two mega athletes and both were given a farewell send-off in the speed skating capital of the Netherlands, Heerenveen, with the King and Crown Princess in attendance. Both skating champions were shown a synopsis of their career achievements as a long banner with a list of competitions they had won was slowly scrolled to the rafters of the world-class skating arena. Each skater’s achievements were so great that only the European, international and Olympic competitions where they won first place were listed.

While Sven Kramer and others (Irene Schouten, Suzanne Schulting, Kjeld Nuis and many others) are speed skating heroes, Ireen Wüst stands alone as the only athlete to win gold medals in five consecutive Olympics, and that catapults her into being a true Modern Dutch Hero.

Written by Marla Thomson