It’s a measure of Sjinkie Knegt’s (NED) supreme mastery of the 1500m that the world record holder and Olympic silver medalist can cruise to a World Cup gold medal and yet still claim to be in “not great shape”.
Sjinkie Knegt (NED) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Knegt looked in complete control as he swept to victory in the Men’s 1500m final at the ISU World Cup Short Track in Salt Lake City last weekend – the same rink where he set his record two minutes, 7.943 seconds in 2016 – and yet afterwards he was far from happy with his physical condition, or even his skating.
“I’m not in particularly good condition,” Knegt said, despite picking up both 1500m gold and Mixed Relay silver. “I’m kind of surprised with how I’m doing right now against all the big countries. All weekend I had trouble with the ice and I couldn’t find a great set-up for my skates. I tried to adjust all week long, and couldn’t find how. In the Mixed Relay final I slipped three times on the ice. It sucks. It’s how it goes, though.”
While to an ordinary bystander, this may seem exceptionally self-critical, it’s this demand for perfection which has led Knegt to win almost every available honor in the sport over more than a decade at the very highest level.
Along with the world record, the Dutch legend has claimed four World Championships gold medals – including the overall title in Moscow in 2015 – along with an astonishing 12 European Championships golds. The only prize that has consistently eluded him has been Olympic glory; the 1500m silver medal he won at PyeongChang 2018 remains his best effort.
Sjinkie Knegt (NED) 2018©Javier Sorianoaf/Getty Images
Knegt’s quest for Olympic gold has been draining. By the time the World Championships of March 2018 had finished, Knegt admits he was spent. He didn’t return to the ice again for more than four months.
“I’ve been competing on the World Cup circuit now for twelve years in a row and, at some point, it takes all your energy and you have to recharge it again,” he explained. “It’s super hard on the body. You have to train every day on ice, as well as many other things to stay in such great shape. It’s not only skating, but also cycling a lot, weight training, running, and then all the sacrifices, all the times you have to say no to friends in order to be a great athlete. Sometimes it’s easy to do it but most of the time, it’s pretty tough.”
Lim Hyo-Jun(KOR) and Sjinkie Knegt (NED) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
It wasn’t just the physical demands of skating which Knegt needed a breather from. In a sport where the tiniest mistake can end your chances in a race, some of the biggest challenges of Short Track are psychological.
“Mentally it’s a super hard game,” Knegt said. ”Fifty percent is in the legs and the other 50% is in the head. Sometimes things go well and other times you mess it up completely. It’s those times which make it tough.”
Before he could embark on another four-year-long Olympic cycle, Knegt needed to step away from skating completely. He turned to his other passion, his long-held dream of competing in the sport of autocross.
“To get the energy for another four years, I decided that during the summer I would only do nice things, things which made me happy,” Knegt said. “Racing autocross has been a dream for me for the last ten years but I had to wait for the right time to fit it into my program.”
This was no snap decision: Knegt had been meticulously preparing for this moment for two years, painstakingly putting in the hours to build his own car from scratch. While this may seem like an unusual way of resting and recuperating from the treadmill of Short Track training and competition, Knegt says that having this outlet has been vital for keeping himself motivated.
“It’s something I’ve been working on little by little for the past two years to try and get it ready, in my free time between training sessions,” he said. “What you see on the track, I had to build entirely by myself. But in many ways, having that has helped my Short Track career. I get so much rest when I’m working on the car because I’m not thinking about skating, and that really helps me every day to focus on getting back on the ice.”
But it hasn’t been easy work. In the months leading up to his debut race in the Dutch town of Haarle at the end of May, Knegt estimates that he spent up to 65 hours a week preparing his car. “It wasn’t a relaxed summer,” he laughed. “It’s not like I didn’t do anything. A day of autocross is sometimes harder than a day of racing a Short Track World Cup. When you crash you have to fix everything.”
And there were plenty of crashes. Knegt admits that racing didn’t entirely go according to plan due to repeated mechanical issues with his vehicle. But far from being deterred, the experience has whetted his appetite for more competitions in future. During PyeongChang 2018, US commentators repeatedly compared Short Track to NASCAR, and having experienced racing both in a car and on the ice, Knegt certainly sees the similarities.
Sjinkie Knegt (NED) at ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“I’m pretty new to the sport so I have to learn a lot but I think it’s kind of the same,” he agreed. “You have to pass in the same way but I think car racing is even more of a technical sport. The car first has to be in great shape and then the driver has to make the right choices. Just in my first year of doing it, it was pretty hard to put nice passes on the track.”
Knegt plans to return to autocross again next summer after the 2018/19 Short Track season is completed. He’s upgrading his car and intends to try and balance racing and skating for the next few years, although he doesn’t see a permanent future for himself in autocross.
“I don’t really know what I will do after skating,” he said. “Maybe I will just go into coaching, but we will see. I’m not thinking about that yet. Racing cars is just for fun though. It’s not making money, it’s just spending a lot of money.”
Sjinkie Knegt (NED) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
But by balancing skating with a twin passion, Knegt believes he can extend his longevity in the sport, perhaps long enough to earn himself another tilt at Olympic glory. He will be 32 by the time Beijing 2022 comes around, and possibly past his peak, at least in the individual races, but Knegt hopes that the addition of the Mixed Relay could give him another opportunity to claim that coveted gold.
“With the Mixed Relay coming in, maybe I’ve now got an extra chance,” he said. “I like it, it’s a new thing and we’re pretty good at it which always makes it better than when you suck at it. But for me, the most important thing at this stage of my career is that I enjoy every day of skating, rather than absolutely killing myself in training to the point where I hate it. That’s more important than just a medal. I don’t know if I’m the kind of person to really go blind for one gold medal.”
Instead, there’s another motivation for Knegt to push himself on to Beijing 2022, a more powerful driving force than even an Olympic gold. By 2022, his two children, Myrthe and Melle, may just be old enough to properly appreciate their father’s unique talent, before he retires.
“Right now, Myrthe is three and Melle is one-and–a-half,” he said. “Melle was just eight months at the Olympics so he didn’t understand it at all, but Myrthe’s already getting a little into the sport and she knows what I’m doing. Hopefully in a couple of years, they’ll know exactly what I’m doing, and I hope that in Beijing, I can show them how great I am in my sport.”