On a day when the perfect race eluded him, Canadian long-track speedskater Ted-Jan Bloemen still finished with a bang.
Skating in the ninth of 11 pairs Sunday in the men’s 5,000 metres at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Bloemen reeled in Sverre Lunde Pedersen with a gut-busting late charge to take top spot over the Norwegian by two hundredths of a second in a time of 6:11.616.
Then came Sven.
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Dutch legend Sven Kramer cranked up his engine, pulling past Bloemen’s time by the 3,000-metre mark en route to winning in 6:09.76 – breaking his own Olympic record of 6:10.76 set four years ago in Sochi – and claiming his third straight gold in the event.
The Dutch-born Bloemen, who holds the world record at 6:01.86, took silver in his Olympic debut while Pedersen was left with a photo-finish bronze.
“That perfect race where you get into a flow and just fly to the finish, it doesn’t always happen and it didn’t happen today,” said Bloemen. “But I made the most out of it and I got everything out of myself that I had.
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“I’m a little bit disappointed that I didn’t have more to give today. But overall I’m really happy and really proud to be on the podium and it’s a really big reward for my whole team.”
Despite his final charge, the 31-year-old from Calgary said he knew Kramer would go faster.
“Yes, because I knew it wasn’t a great race. So I expected him to beat it. But I think it was still fairly close.”
It was Canada’s third medal of the day at the Games after snowboarders Max Parrot and Mark McMorris took silver and bronze in the men’s slopestyle.
The 31-year-old Kramer, a four-time Olympian who has dominated the sport, won the event in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. He made it a three-peat in style, gobbling up the Gangneung Oval metres like an Orange Pac-Man.
Kramer’s Olympic medal tally now stands at four gold, two silver and two bronze.
He now looks to win a first Olympic gold in the 10,000 metres on Feb. 15 and catch Finland’s Clas Thunberg and American Eric Heiden, who won five Olympic speedskating golds.
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He has another podium shot in the team pursuit Feb. 21, setting up more showdowns with Bloemen, who has already erased Kramer’s world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.
Canadian coach Bart Schouten saw good and bad in Bloemen’s race.
“I did not think it was his best race,” he said. “He started well, but maybe a little bit to fast. And after five or six laps, I think he really lost his skating position and he wasn’t skating as well as he could have.”
Schouten said Bloemen did not respond as well as he could to Pedersen. That prompted a vocal response from the Canadian coaches.
“We told him to fight and really wanted to wake him up. Because it looked like he needed some help to respond. And in the end he responded really well with the last two laps … That was obviously a classic finish.”
Bloemen’s last two laps were 29.58 and 29.44 seconds. Kramer, who beat the German he was paired with by more than eight seconds, finished with laps of 29.52 and 29.47 despite being under no duress.
Bloemen and Pedersen were in the same pair some two months ago when Bloemen set the 5,000 record.
Bloemen said he had cut back on his training just ahead of Sunday’s race, so as to preserve his stamina for the Olympic campaign.
“I was fit today and it was a strong race obviously otherwise you can’t get a silver medal,” he said. “So we made it in time. But that last little bit of flow and rhythm that I’m looking for in a long-distance race is something that I am going to have to find in the next couple of days.”
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Bloemen’s father Gerhard-Jan was born in Bathurst, N.B., and lived in Canada for seven years before his family returned to the Netherlands in 1964. Ted-Jan Bloemen made the move back to Canada in June 2014, finding a speedskating home after spinning his wheels in the talent-rich Dutch system and missing out on Sochi selection.
Kramer, who has 404,000 Twitter followers compared to Bloemen’s 3,500, said he was helped by the draw – which allowed him to change his strategy after seeing his rivals start fast and then fade.
It was day of history for the Dutch icon.
He is the first male speed skater to win three Olympic gold in a single event. And his eight medal set a record for male speed skaters (surpassing Thunberg and Norway’s Ivar Ballangrud on seven).
He becomes the first Dutch male to win eight Olympic medals in any sport (surpassing swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband who has seven).
His four gold also move him past Ard Schenk for most among male Dutch speed skaters.
“It’s a nice fact but I’m already looking forward to the next distance,” Kramer said. “For sure it’s nice to have three gold in a row in the 5K. It’s nice to hear and it’s nice to make kind of history. But now I’m going to try and recover as soon as possible from this and looking forward to the next competitions.”
Away from the ice, Kramer has the swagger of a champion. After crossing the finish line, he held up one finger to signify who was No 1.
He then held court with the Dutch media in the mixed zone before heading to the medallists’ news conference, which he ended himself when there was a pause in the questioning.
“Nice, thanks,” he said, standing up to leave.
Four years ago in Sochi, the Netherlands won eight of 12 gold medals and 23 out of a total of 36 while sweeping the medals in four races. And the Dutch machine is already in Orange Crush mode in South Korea, with two gold, a silver and a bronze in the first two races.
The crowd got loud for Lee Seung-Hoon, the lone Korean entry. Cheers followed him around the Oval like the wave. He responded by catching Belgian Bart Swings to move atop the standings. The hometown favourite stayed there through seven pairs until New Zealand’s Peter Michael moved into the lead, catching his Dutch opponent late.
The Korean finished fifth.