ChangChun / China

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Kai Verbij (NED) 

With the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games done and dusted, the sprinters do not have time for much rest. On March 3-4, they will take the ice again for the 49th ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in Changchun, China. Kai Verbij (NED) and Nao Kodaira (JPN) will defend the title they won in Calgary (CAN) last year.

First senior ISU World Championships on Changchun Oval
It is the first time the Jilin Provincial Speed Skating Rink in Changchun will host a senior ISU World Championships. The track was built for the 2007 Asian Winter Games and hosted the ISU World Junior Speed Skating Championships in 2008 and 2016, and ISU World Cup events in 2008 and 2010. The track records in the 500m for ladies and men date back to 2008, when Jenny Wolf (GER) set 37.98 and Yu Fengtong (CHN) skated 34.97. Zhang Hong (CHN) set the 1000m track record of 1:15.96 in 2015, while Stefan Groothuis (NED) clocked the fastest 1000m with 1:09.39 in 2010.

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Kjeld Nuis (NED) ©Getty Images

Missing celebrations
Kjeld Nuis (NED) was crowned Olympic 1500m and 1000m champion in PyeongChang, but he skipped the festive reception of the successful Dutch Olympians in Amsterdam to fly from Korea to Changchun directly. “Of course it’s a pity not to be at the celebrations back home,” he said. “But I’m enough of a sportsman to go there and I watched the World Sprint Championships my whole life, it’s a major title and I’m in great shape, so it would be a shame not to compete there.” Nuis already won silver at the ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Championships in 2016 and bronze in 2017, but the gold medal is still missing on his list of honor.

Nuis said Håvard Lorentzen (NOR) is the man to beat in Changchun. The Norwegian sprinter won the Olympic 500m title and finished second in the 1000m, just 0.04 seconds behind Nuis. Like his Dutch rival, Lorentzen never won the World Sprint title. He took his first medal in the competition, when he came second in Calgary last year.

Verbij did not win Olympic silverware, coming ninth in the 500m and sixth in the 1000m. The reigning world sprint champion did not have the best of preparations on his Olympic campaign after he suffered a muscle injury at the Dutch Olympic qualification competition in December.

Mika Poutala (FIN) will also try to make amends for not seizing a medal in PyeongChang. The Finnish veteran missed the 500m podium by 0.03 seconds. In the 1000m he showed to be a great sportsman when he held back to give Nuis priority on the final crossing. He said: “I knew that he was battling for the win, and I knew that I was not battling for the medals anymore, so it was an easy choice for me. I just want to treat people the way I want people to treat me.”

After PyeongChang 2018 it will be interesting to watch Min Kyu Cha (KOR) and Tingyu Gao (CHN), who surprisingly took the Olympic 500m silver and bronze. Korea’s Tae-Yun Kim, who took the Olympic 1000m bronze, will not be present in Changchun. Twofold World Sprint Champion Pavel Kulizhnikov (RUS) withdrew from the Changchun competition.

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Nao Kodaira (JPN) ©Getty Images

Kodaira in league of her own
Nao Kodaira (JPN) is the lady to beat in Changchun. The 31-year-old title defender won the Olympic 500m title and came second in the 1000m. Last year in Calgary Kodaira was in a league of her own, but it was only the first time she was on the podium in the World Championships.

Her main rivals last year were Heather Bergsma (USA) and Jorien ter Mors (NED), who took silver and bronze. Bergsma will not skate in Changchun, but Ter Mors will. The Dutchwoman seized Olympic gold in the 1000m, and she came sixth in the 500m.

Bergsma’s compatriot Brittany Bowe (USA) will skate in Changchun. She won the ISU World Sprint title in 2015 and 2016. After a severe concussion in the summer of 2016, Bowe fought a tough battle to get back to the ice. She made it to PyeongChang 2018 to win her first career Olympic medal, with bronze in the Team Pursuit together with Heather Bergsma and Mia ManganelloManganello. Individually Bowe came fourth in the 500m, and fifth in the 1000m and the 1500m.

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Heather Bergsma (USA) ©Getty Images