Lara van Ruijven (NED) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Lara van Ruijven didn’t think she was going to have a great 2018/19 Short Track season. In fact, she feared it might be a disaster. “My summer training was really bad and I felt terrible,” she admits. “I thought it was going to not be a good year for me. I was experimenting with my equipment – I tried longer blades, different brands – and because of that, I didn’t skate that good. Then I think maybe I trained too hard. All together, it was very bad.”
Lara van Ruijven (NED) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Her instincts, however, were completely wrong. The 26-year-old had her best term yet in 2018/19, ending up as a gold medalist in the 500m at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria – and becoming the first woman from the Netherlands ever to win a title at the top annual Short Track event (beating Suzanne Schulting, who won three the next day, by 24 hours).
“I don’t know why, but my summers are often really horrible,” she reflects now, as she has some downtime in her home town, just outside The Hague. “You can ask my teammates. They will be thinking, ‘My God’ at my skating in the summer, and then, in winter, they realize: ‘There is Lara again.’ And I think the shoes and the blades helped me in the end – I just needed to get used to them.
“In a few weeks it improved, and I felt better and better. And then I won my first World Cup gold medal at Calgary, and that gave me confidence. It was a big step, to show I can win a gold.
“Going to Sofia, I knew I had a chance. I’d been skating well at the last couple of World Cups, although the results weren’t quite there. I just thought I had to make it to the finals and then we’ll see. I knew it was possible going in, and then I was skating well during the competition. So I had some confidence. But it wasn’t completely clear, so when I did, it was definitely a surprise.”
Fan Kexin (CHN), Lara van Ruijven (NED) and Suzanne Schulting (NED) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
She won the 500m in some style, and with quite a bit of drama, too. Van Ruijven led all the way round the race but looked like she might have lost out as Martina Valcepina, who had won the season’s final two 500m World Cup golds, powered around the corner and beat her to the line by a fraction – sending the Dutch skater to the floor in the process. But the judges eventually decided that the Italian had committed a foul.
Lara van Ruijven (NED) and Martina Vacepina (ITA) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“On the last lap I was thinking, ‘I have to defend my place’,” says Van Ruijven. “On the last corner I was slipping and thinking, ‘Oh my God’, which is not great. Then Martina came on the inside, used her arm, and I went over. I fell over the line. It was a bit crazy. I saw the video and thought, ‘There is hope’. Then I saw that I had won, and it was unreal.”
She has hardly had time to rest since. “My home town put on a celebration for me, and there were some interviews,” she says. “Everyone I would see on the street, my friends and family, they’d all be congratulating me, so that was nice. I am reminded every day of winning. I had a lot of activities after my title. It was hectic but it has helped it feel more real. And being the first (woman) gold medal winner from my country, that was a special thing to do.”
Coach Jeroen Otter (NED) at the Winter Olympic Games 2018©Getty Images
The Netherlands’ renowned coaching set-up, spearheaded by Jeroen Otter, has been instrumental in transforming Van Ruijven’s technique – and mental approach to skating. “Jeroen is very good, he always pushes you to the limits,” she says. “He kept telling me that I am a very good 500m skater and that I can win medals. I didn’t believe it so much, but he really helped me see it.
“His training programs are always very interesting – he varies things a lot, he is inventive and tries new things. He is also very honest with you. He will tell you if you’re not doing good. Sometimes you don’t want to hear it, but it will benefit you.”
Having a world-class squad to race against every day in training also helps. “We are great friends and we push each other on,” says Van Ruijven. “Everyone is doing so good, you see their results and medals, and you want to win them, too.
“In training you have each other to challenge each other, which is a positive thing. I get to race lots of laps with Suzanne Schulting and the other girls every day. She is the best in the world, so who can be better to skate with?”
Van Ruijven isn’t sure whether she will be able to emulate Schulting and become an Overall Champion; a natural sprinter, she finds 1000m and 1500m tougher challenges. “I am explosive, and so the 1500m is not so great for me,” she says. “But a sprinter can become good at 1000m and 1500m. It’s not impossible.
Lara van Ruijven (NED) at ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“With the longer distances, you have to keep more relaxed during skating. With 500m, you go as fast as you can from the start, and for me it is easier to keep calm when you are doing that. For the longer distances, you have to skate very efficiently. I need to improve on that – skating more laps without losing lots of energy. It is more a technical thing than an endurance thing. I hope I can get better.”
Lara van Ruijven (NED) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
There is little time to rest. Training for 2019/20 has already begun. These are hectic times for Van Ruijven. “I haven’t had a holiday because I am studying law, and I have a test (at the) end of April,” she says. “But I am already training every day, on the bike and with weights.
“I got to party a bit at the end of the season and have some fun with my friends but I didn’t get a long holiday. It is quite difficult to combine law with Short Track. I will have a one-week holiday after my test, and then we have got a team bike camp in Austria. It will get intensive.”
Suzanne Schulting (NED) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
The hard work has paid off for the Netherlands team, however. “It was great seeing Suzanne become overall World Champion,” says Van Ruijven. “She works so hard, she is such a fighter, so when she sees somewhere that she needs to improve, she takes care of it. She is even the fastest on the bikes. I hope I can get better every season, too.”
Terrible summer or not, she will be a threat next season.