Sjinkie Knegt (NED) ©International Skating Union (ISU)
A text message from stricken superstar Sjinkie Knegt is serving to inspire the hometown Dutch squad as the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships got off to an emotional start in Dordrecht, the Netherlands on Friday.
Despite currently being in quarantine in hospital having suffered serious burns after his clothes caught fire during an accident at his home, the two-time Olympic medallist and 12-time European champion found the energy to wish his teammates “good luck” and assure them he will recover.
“As of right now he is very positive,” Jeroen Otter, the Dutch head coach, said. “He is such a positive person, very strong. Of course it breaks his heart not to be here but he’s like, ‘It’s OK, I am going to survive this’.”
Knegt, who was already nursing a leg injury which had ruled him out of the European Championships, has third degree burns on his left leg and will be kept in isolation for some days to come, according to Dutch team officials.
“Obviously it has had a massive impact on the team, emotionally and mentally. So we are really taking it step-by-step, day-by-day,” said discipline manager Wilf O’Reilly.
A picture and a hashtag saying 'for Sjinkie' is shown on the screen in support for Sjinkie Knegt ©International Skating Union (ISU)
At times, Friday’s action felt like a tribute to the hugely popular Knegt with his image posted all over the Sportboulevard arena. Olympic champion Suzanne Schulting was one of the first to post #VoorSjinkie (for Sjinkie) on social media and after a wealth of fellow skaters, not to mention fans, followed her example, the hashtag has become something of an unofficial slogan for the Championships.
“For sure we are skating for him,” said Lara van Ruijven, winner of the Ladies 3000m Relay bronze at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games. “It’s really tough but I prefer not to talk about it today, Saturday and Sunday. We are parking it for now.”
Otter could not hide his admiration for the way his skaters have managed to balance their obvious concern for Knegt with the knowledge that their teammate would like nothing more than for them to ignore him and go out and win some silverware for the Netherlands.
“We all live, the coaches, the staff, the racers, in two separate worlds; reality, which is the world of Sjinkie, and then the cocoon of these Championships,” Otter said. “And right now everything is just about the sport, it is amazing to see. People are really focused on this and then when the races are over, they think about Sjinkie.”
Coach Jeroen Otter (NED) ©International Skating Union (ISU)
The Men’s 5000m Relay team raced without Knegt on Friday evening, an entirely new experience for many members of the quartet.
“In training we do a lot of relays so we are used to doing it in different teams but in a spiritual way it was strange, he is always there and now he isn’t,” Itzhak de Laat said after helping the Dutch team to a comfortable victory in the first quarter-final. “But we did well without him and I am glad we showed we are a strong team without him.”
ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships at Sportboulevard in Dordrecht (NED) ©International Skating Union (ISU)
A noisy, packed stadium, with many of the spectators schoolchildren, certainly appreciated de Laat and his compatriots’ efforts throughout the day. With all three days sold out, the Dutch team are relishing the opportunity to use the crowd’s energy to propel them to finishes Knegt would be proud of.
“There are so many people here,” Rianne de Vries, the 2017 European 500m Champion, said. “The first race, I was a little bit nervous but then I really liked it. It gives you so much energy and these people here are the future of Short Track.”
For O’Reilly, the first day of action in the Sportboulevard arena summed up all that is great about his beloved sport.
“It is bringing what Short Track is to the fore,” said the man who won double gold for Great Britain at the Calgary 1988 Olympic Games. “Jeroen (Otter) and I, we always say that Short Track is SOS – Snel fast, Onvoorspelbaar unpredictable and Sensationeel sensational.
“Being here in Dordrecht with 4,000 people in the stands, it is putting the sport on the map. It is not a winter sport that just comes around every four years when the Olympic Games gives it that platform and everybody thinks it’s amazing and then it falls back to nothing. It is a sport for the future.”
The first medals will be won on Saturday with the Ladies’ and Men’s 1500m finals taking place from 15:20 local time. Do not miss it and find out where to watch.