Q=interviewer (Irene Postma for ISU), N = Natalia Czerwonka
Top sport life has not always been easy for Polish Natalia Czerwonka. The 28-year-old silver 2014 Olympic medalist suffered a head injury and a broken vertebra after a collision with a tractor, while training on the bike in August 2014. We took the opportunity to talk to her in Heerenveen last December. Her passion for speed skating is still unbroken.
Q: How does it feel to be back on the ice?
N: Last season I was really happy just to be able to skate, this season I want to be competitive again. I love speed skating, it’s the most important thing in my life. Ahead of this season I worked very hard in the summer, but my start at the World Cups in Asia was really bad. I’m glad that I improved a lot, winning the 1000m B division and coming fifth in the 1500m at the Heerenveen World Cup in December.
Q: What can you remember about the accident?
N: I’m actually very happy that I don’t remember what happened. A tractor hit me, while I was on my bike. I remember waking up when they made a scan or something, but those are just flashes. I did not know how serious the injuries were at first, I only came to realize that later.
Q: You worked hard to come back. Where did you find the energy?
N: I love sports and I’m very stubborn. I already had this ambition as a kid. I want to become a better athlete. My ambition drives me to a higher level. This stubbornness and ambition helped me to overcome setbacks in the past and it helped me after my accident too.
Q: You already had the ambition as a kid. When and why did you start speed skating?
N: I started when I was ten years old. I went to an ordinary primary school. When children were asked to take part in fitness tests for school sports, I went there with my father. I had to run and swim and to different exercises. When the tests were over, I was qualified for the speed skating class. At first instance I wanted to change it to running, because I did not know speed skating at all. I had done running, swimming and duathlon, which is running-cycling-running. Eventually my dad advised me to try something new. We did not have a 400m track in my home town (Lubin), but we had a 250m track, and I loved speed skating from the very start.
Q: How did you develop into a world class speed skater without a 400m rink in your home town?
N: When I was fifteen, I went to a sports school in Zakopane. That’s about 500 kilometer from Lubin. It was hard for my parents to let me go at such a young age. I only went home for Christmas, but it was more professional. I trained with other speed skaters like Luiza Zlotskowska, Katarzyna Wozniak and Konrad Niedzwiedzki. We started the day with training and went to school afterwards.
I was in this school for four years. It’s where I grew up and learned about life. Nowadays I sometimes laugh about it with my parents. It may have been more difficult for them than it was for me. If something happened my dad would always drive over, a five-hour-drive. I had my bad moments as an adolescent, sometimes skipping school lessons or something. I remember one day my father drove unexpected on a Sunday. Just to see how I was. My parents always supported me.
Q: Who were your sporting heroes when you were a kid?
N: I used to spend hours watching the Tour the France and Lance Armstrong was a real hero. It was really hard for me as a fan when he got caught for doping. The same goes for Marion Jones, the American athlete. I used to admire her a lot, but she got caught too. After that I had some Polish sports women I looked up to, for example Otylia Jędrzejczak, who is a swimmer, and cross country skier Justyna Kowalczyk.
Q: Which coach have you learned most from during your career?
N: I’ve had many coaches throughout and I always tried to learn the best from what they could give. I am happy with my current coach, Arkadiusz Skoneczny. He’s the coach from my local club, but the Polish federation gave me permission to train with him. He used to be a skater himself and he know a lot a about physiotherapy and massage. He spends a lot of time with me on the ice rink to work on technique. In speed skating you can always improve your technique.
Q: What were the highlights of your career so far?
N: That’s definitely my gold medal in the Team Pursuit at the Olympic Games in Sochi 2014. I competed at the Olympic Games in Vancouver 2010, the first major sports event in my life. That was a defining moment in my career, the scale, the fans, the Olympic village. People who usually take no interest in speed skating are fans every four years. As a 21-year-old, I did not realize how big the media attention was at the time. My team mates won a bronze medal in the Team Pursuit and I was really proud and happy, we were friends. But the papers wrote: bronze medal for Katarzyna Bachleda-Curus, Luiza Złotkowska and Katarzyna Wozniak. My team mates said, in four years we’re going to win this medal with you. I learned from the experience, the ups and downs. Four years of hard work finally paid off with that silver medal in Sochi.
Q: After winning that medal and coming back from your accident, what are your goals going forward?
N: Pyeongchang of course, first the World Single Distance Championships this season and next year the Olympic Games. We need to step up our game in the Team Pursuit. The Japanese Ladies have improved a lot and the Dutch too, but we definitely want that third medal in row. Individually I aim at the 1000m and the 1500m.
Q: The European Allround Championships were relocated from Warsaw to Heerenveen this season. Did you regret that?
N: For sure. As an athlete you always want to compete in your own country. Poland is building a new indoor 400m track in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, about hundred kilometers from Warsaw, so it may happen sometime in the future. At the moment I usually train in Inzell and before the Vancouver Games we used to train in Berlin a lot.
Q: What will you’re life look like after your career as a speed skater is finished?
N: I really don’t know yet. Right now I’m fully focused on speed skating. After my career I will definitely not sit behind a desk somewhere. I would love to do something in speed skating. I finished my studies in physical education last year. Maybe I’ll become a coach. I could start with children. I really love children.