Martina Sáblíková (CZE) at the ISU European Speed Skating Championships (ITA) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
She is one of the most decorated Olympic athletes from the Czech Republic. Martina Sáblíková has been competing in Speed Skating for more than twenty years. "I used to watch my heroes on television," she says with a touch of nostalgia. "Then I skated against my heroes and it made me a little sad to see them leave the sport. Now I'm 32 years old myself and I see new youngsters coming. That's strange." Make no mistake: Sáblíková is not planning retirement. In February 2019, she took her 48th World Cup gold medal at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating event in Hamar (NOR), and she is as dedicated to her sport as ever.
"I started inline skating when I was 11 years old in my hometown, Ždár nad Sázavou in the Czech Republic. My mother was friends with the wife of my coach [Petr Novak], who still is my coach 21 years later."
Ždár nad Sázavou did not have a Speed Skating rink, but young Sáblíková did skate on a nearby lake when it was frozen. "But we could only skate when it was a cold winter, so we often went abroad to go training in Warsaw, Collalbo or Inzell."
Martina Sáblíková (CZE) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (POL) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Sáblíková's talent for Speed Skating became apparent quickly. "When I was fourteen years old, I skated 4 minutes and 42 seconds in the 3000m and when I was fifteen I qualified for the European Allround Championships in Heerenveen. It was my first experience at an indoor rink and I remember entering Thialf stadium, with about 15,000 people in the stands. I was so nervous, oh my god…"
Due to a problem she had to quit after the 500m at her first European Championships, but Sáblíková was hooked for life and she took the nomadic life of a top athlete for granted. "Since I was about 16-17 years old, I'm away from home for almost nine months a year. It was hard to spend so much time away from my parents, but I was lucky to have my brother in the same group and we've always had a great group of colleagues."
Martina Sáblíková (CZE) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (NOR) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Tears of joy in Vancouver
Sáblíková's younger brother Milan Sáblík also skated at top level, but never made it to the Olympic Games. "He missed the qualifying mark of 1:49.00 in the 1500m for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver by 0.03 seconds and he eventually quit Speed Skating in 2013."
Martina Sáblíková (CZE) at the Winter Olympic Games (CAN) 2010©AFP
For Martina Vancouver was the pinnacle of her Speed Skating career, despite a troubled run-up to the games at personal level. "Vancouver was one of my toughest competitions, because my parents were in a divorce and as a medal favorite the Czech press were writing a lot about me and also about the divorce of my parents. They kept asking me about it and they kept asking about my fourth place in Torino [2006 Olympics]. Then Petr [Novak] said to me: don’t read the papers and the magazines, don’t watch the television, don't listen to anyone and I'll make sure to keep everyone away from you. That was the way to success.
Petr Novak at the ISU European Speed Skating Championships (ITA) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
"I had already won World titles and European titles, but this was the Olympics, the highest podium for an athlete in the world. I remember I was in first place in the 3000m with only one pair to go. It was Daniela Anschütz and Ireen Wüst (NED), who was the defending champion. I thought ok, at least I've got a bronze medal, but then Ireen ended skating the seventh time and Daniele the fourth. I sort of woke up and jumped, I was so happy, I still couldn't believe it."
Arch rival Wüst
Martina Sáblíková (CZE) and Ireen Wüst (NED) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (NED) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
Sáblíková went on to win the 5000m in Vancouver too and she won a bronze medal in the 1500m, with Wüst on top of the podium. The Dutch multiple Olympic, World and European Champion has been Sáblíková's main rival throughout her career. They both won five European Allround titles. "She's a rival and a hero at the same time. We are people not just opponents in a sports contest. We go back such a long way and we help each other too. I know Ireen is sad at the moment [after losing best friend and former World Allround Champion Paulien van Deutekom]. We talked about it a lot at the European Championships in Collalbo and I told Ireen that I'm with her if she needs anything. Ireen has also supported me in the past. I remember once laying on a bench with a groin injury, waiting for a doctor after a race in Salt Lake City, Ireen came to me and she said: 'You'll be all-right soon. I need you.' She's great and we like each other very much."
Pictures of skater legends such as Rintje Ritsma, Anni Friesinger and Beert Boomsma during the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (NED) 2017©International Skating Union(ISU)
Wüst has been one of the most influential persons in Sáblíková's career. Others are coach Petr Novak, her brother, her parents and her friends in the Speed Skating world. "Every time someone in Speed Skating quits, I'm a little sad. I've seen so many people coming and going. Anni Friesinger (GER) was one of my heroes. I was lucky enough to skate against her, when I was still young. We were paired up in a World Cup 1500m and she beat me by 4 seconds. I just thought: 'How can she be that fast?'"
Two-time European Champion Tonny de Jong (NED) was another inspirational example. "She was very tiny and she still managed to beat the other more powerful athletes. I was tiny too and I thought: 'If she can do it, I can do it too.'"
Martina Sáblíková (CZE) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (NED) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
Sáblíková has had her fair share of injuries during her long career and she even considered quitting the sport in the run-up to last year’s PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, suffering from a painful back injury. "I was in great pain, when I skated and I was not even able to skate more than two or three laps without having to stretch my back. I had needles in my back and everything. Three weeks before the Games started the pain was more or less gone, but that was too late for a good preparation."
Martina Sáblíková (CZE) at the ISU World Cup Speed Skating (GER) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Now that the problems with her back are over, Sáblíková doesn't consider quitting anymore. "I just cannot imagine a life without Speed Skating. After twenty years, what should I do? Being a coach could be an option, but that's very difficult. As a skater you're responsible for your own mistakes, but as a coach the skaters are the ones who suffer if you make a mistake. Of course I'm always there for the new generation to give advice, but being a coach is a different responsibility.
"As long as I'm healthy and as long as I don't know what else I want to do, I'm going to continue what I love doing most and that's Speed Skating. I hope to be around at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games."
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Sáblíková could consider another attempt to qualify for the Summer Olympic Games. She already aimed to participate in road cycling at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, but missed out due to paperwork mistakes. "The federation had told me that I needed to ride top-10 in the World Championships time trial, which I managed to do. But eventually I also needed UCI-points for the Road Race. I did get those points, but that appeared to be after the qualification deadline. I did travel to Rio in a final attempt to get it arranged, but it did not work out. When I came home I got drunk for two days, not very professional but I was devastated. I went back to Speed Skating, but the Czech cycling federation still want me to give it another try and they are very supportive. I might give it another go next time, who knows?"