Short Track spent an age in Long Track’s shadow – but now the Netherlands are back in style. Discipline Manager Wilf O’Reilly explains how it happened.
Wilf O'Reilly (GBR) Winter Olympic Games 1992© Getty Images
The Netherlands have been the kings and queens of Long Track skating forever. It’s a sport with roots and traditions in the lowlands: if you were a youngster with a pair of skates, from Amsterdam to Utrecht, over the past couple of decades, it was one of the country’s speedy heroes that you wanted to emulate – legends like Ireen Wust or Sven Kramer.
Sven Kramer (NED) ISU World Cup Speed Skating 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
That, however, is slowly changing. The country may still dominate the long format on the ice but, over recent years, it’s become a Short Track force, too. Kids now want to be like Sjinkie Knegt and Suzanne Schulting – recently crowned as 2018 Dutch Sportswoman of the Year.
Why? Wilf O’Reilly, who competed for Great Britain but has worked on the coaching and management team of the Dutch Short Track team for 20 years, has a unique insight. It could have happened much earlier, he believes – but a pivotal moment delayed their progress.
“Back in the 1980s when I was competing, the Dutch were very good at Short Track, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s, they became four-time World Champions in the Relay,” he explains. “They had finance, resources and facilities already, because Long Track was so popular.
Short Track Speed Skating at the Winter Olympic Games in 1988©Getty Images
“They were winning everything for a while, and then it was decided that Short Track would become a demonstration sport for the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, and they did well there too, winning the 5000m Men’s Relay.
“But in my opinion, the KNSB (Royal Dutch Skating Federation) thought that nothing much needed to change. They thought all they had to do was put skates on and they’d get a medal. Then, in 1991, at the qualifiers for the 1992 Olympics, the Dutch team fell over and missed out on the Games. After that, I think they missed the boat.
Hwang Dae-Heon (KOR) Samuel Girard (CAN) Dajing Wu (CHN) ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating Seoul 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“The Koreans, Chinese and Canadians started investing heavily, and they got ahead.”
Indeed they did, leaving the Dutch without an Olympic Short Track medal until Sochi 2014, where Knegt won bronze in the Men’s 1000m.
Sjinkie Knegt (NED) Winter Olympic Games Sochi 2014©Getty Images
When O’Reilly arrived in 2006, it was clear big changes needed to be made in order to make the Netherlands competitive again.
“We had to break through tradition,” he says. “Long Track is so popular, we had to educate people, and make them understand Short Track – about its strategy. It’s a bit like when I try to explain to Dutch people why cricket is so interesting. We needed facilities, funding and a structure. We have all that now.”
There were 342 Short Track athletes in the Netherlands back in 2006; O’Reilly says there are now about 1,800, plus 20 coaches. “The sponsors and Olympic Committee have really invested in the program,” he says. “We have Jeroen Otter, who is perhaps the best coach in the world. And our facility in Thialf, Heerenveen, has just had a fantastic renovation.
Jeroen Otter (NED) Winter Olympic Games 2018©Getty Images
“Importantly, Long Track coaches also now understand that the two sports can benefit each other,” he adds. “We’ve also changed small things – like the fact that in Holland, Men and Ladies race together. You’re in a category based on ability, not on your gender.
Team Netherlands, Team China and Team Korea after the Mixed Relay ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (CAN) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“And we used to have a Senior and Junior team, everyone lived in Heerenveen to train. Now, we’ve got three regional talent centers, meaning skaters can stay at home for longer, finish school, but still benefit from national-standard coaching at regional level.”
Yara van Kerkhof (NED) ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Yara van Kerkhof came through the program and signals a new attitude to the sport among her generation. “Maybe our parents thought that Short Track was too dangerous or risky,” she says. “But mine were fine with it, they let me get on with racing. I tried both, but I liked Short Track much more.
“Sometimes Mum and Dad didn’t want to watch me because they were worried what might happen, but they never said, ‘Don’t do it’. And although we crash a lot, it is not too bad. We have decent pads, and moveable boarding. Maybe every sportsperson has to be a little bit crazy.”
O’Reilly sees a bright future for the Netherlands on the ice. But can they break the Republic of Korea’s traditional stranglehold?
“Initially, we made big steps, and progress was easy,” he says of his time on the Dutch team. “But now I’ve moved from the big picture into more details.
“We have some good young names coming through, like Dylan Hoogerwerf and Jasper Brunsmann. Korea have won more Olympic medals in this sport than any other country, and for years we just couldn’t compete against them. Now we can.
Dylan Hoogerwerf (NED) ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (GER) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
“It’s not that Korea are performing worse – it’s just that other countries have raised their games. The one thing we maybe still need to change is that Short Track still isn’t a mass participation sport. We need to get more people trying it out at a local level.”
Watch big and up and coming names in Dutch Short Track at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships taking place in Dordrecht (NED) on January 11-13, 2019.