Italy's Martina Valcepina won 500m gold for the second World Cup weekend running © International Skating Union
Martina Valcepina shook off the expectation of being Italy’s poster girl and delivered the 500m gold Torino was hoping for as the final Short Track speed skating World Cup of the season got under way on Saturday.
With the poster board in the warm-up area showing off the many newspaper and magazine articles about Valcepina, combined with the strength of the 500m field, it was a tough day for the Italian.
“I have felt a lot of pressure, a lot,” Valcepina admitted later. “I have been very tense all week.”
Last week in Dresden, Germany, Valcepina dominated, leading all her heats and the final from the gun, but her route to a second successive World Cup sprint gold was far more demanding. Having squeaked through her quarter and semifinal, the 26-year-old faced the two women ahead of her in the season-long World Cup rankings, Lara van Ruijven (NED) and Natalia Maliszewska (POL), as well as PyeongChang 2018 Olympic 500m bronze medallist Kim Boutin (CAN).
Nerves were stretched even further by the final being re-started three times following crashes in the first half-lap.
Once they finally got under way Valcepina drove to the front, roared on by the crowd in the Tazzoli Ice Rink, which included her twin four-year-old daughters. And she managed to stay there – just – as she held off the fast-finishing Maliszewska on the line.
“That felt so good,” Valcepina said. “It has been so different compared to last week in Dresden. The nerves, and the ice was different - softer, not as quick. I couldn’t do what I did last week.”
Suzanne Schulting (NED) wrapped up the 1500m title with another sublime display © International Skating Union
The win saw the Italian narrow the gap to just 247 points on second-placed Van Ruijven in the World Cup rankings with only Sunday’s second 500m to come. On the back of a stunningly consistent season, Poland’s Maliszewska remains out in front and her lead of 9240 points means the crown is almost hers.
“It’s the fifth World Cup, there have been six finals so far and I have been in all of them - that is awesome,” said Maliszewska. “Consistency and stability… It’s the best thing I have done all season.”
Mathematically speaking both Valcepina and Van Ruijven can catch the 23-year-old Pole with a win on Sunday but only if Maliszewska finally fails to reach the latter stages of the competition.
But while the competition remains tight in the sprint, there is absolutely no doubt who rules the longer distances. Fresh from sealing the 1000m title last weekend in Dresden, the Netherlands’ Suzanne Schulting added the 1500m crown in what is already a remarkable season.
Despite the seven-strong field for the final featuring the likes of three-time world champion Elise Christie (GBR) and rising Russian star Sofia Prosvirnova, there was little doubt Schulting would claim her sixth World Cup win of the season. The Dutch skater looked in a different class from her opening heat and seemed to slip into another gear with six laps to go.
Germany's Anna Seidel finished third in the 1500m © International Skating Union
“She is so strong,” said Wilf O’Reilly, the Dutch team discipline manager. “But she has got 2-3% improvement in her at least for the Worlds (Championships). We put in a lot of hard work after the Europeans.”
That may be a worrying thought for her rivals, but one woman who is relishing the prospect of next month’s World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria is Anna Seidel. Last week the young German was crushed by the disappointment of failing to even make a final in front of her home crowd but, unburdened by the pressure of expectation, Seidel flew round the Tazzoli rink.
“I am super happy,” Seidel said after finishing third in the 1500m, behind Korea’s Kim Ji Yoo. “Last week I was really sad and frustrated – it was like I had weights – but this is a perfect comeback. There is nothing better. A lot of the girls in the race were really strong, and this shows me that I am capable and anything can happen in Short Track.”
It is the German’s second World Cup medal of a highly promising season. She will go again in Sunday’s 1000m as the women race for the final time ahead of March’s World Championships.