Olga Fatkulina followed up yesterday's Team Sprint gold by winning the European 500m title © International Skating Union
Olga Fatkulina (RUS) won her first major individual international title since picking up 500m gold at the 2013 World Championships on the second day of the ISU European Speed Skating Championships in Heerenveen, Netherlands, on Saturday. The 29-year-old Russian beat defending champion Vanessa Herzog (AUT) in the Ladies' 500m. Esmee Visser (NED) successfully defended her title in the 3000m.
Dutch junior Femke Kok (NED), who had surprisingly qualified for the European Championships at the Dutch trials in December, had set a high bar for the rest of the field by skating to a World Junior record of 37.66 - only 0.49 seconds outside the track record, in the third pair.
Herzog was the first of the favorites to break that mark, the reigning 500m World and European Champion setting 37.49 in the third-last pairing to push Kok into second place.
In the penultimate pair Angelina Golikova (RUS) finished one hundredth of a second outside Herzog to move into second, before Katkulina entered the rink in the final pair.
The 2013 World Champion opened with 10.54, a tenth of a second slower than both Herzog and Golikova, but she went on to skate the full lap in 26.86 seconds - the only skater to dip below 27. She finished in 37.40, pushing Herzog into second place and nudging Kok off the podium.
The Russian champion said: "The European Championships is a high level competition, [it's like] the Worlds [Championships] without Nao Kodaira (JPN).
"I felt good before the race. Yesterday was very emotional day, with our victory in the team sprint and I was in a good mood today. I'm looking forward to Salt Lake."
Nervous Visser comes out on top
Early starter Esmee Visser had a nervous wait before her 3000m gold medal could be confirmed © International Skating Union
Once the ice-cleaning machines had wiped the sprinter's dust off the Thialf ice, it was time for stamina. Defending champion Visser was the first of the favorites to enter the rink, paired up with Noemi Bonazza (ITA).
The Italian youngster started faster than the hot favorite, but paid the price halfway through the race. As Bonazza's lap times went up into 33 and 34 seconds, Visser continued to skate 31-second laps towards the end, and closed out with a 32.03 lap to finish in 3:59.15.
"I like to skate early [in the field]," Visser said. "[Skating early] I can skate my own race [instead of aiming at someone else's time]. But I hate having to sit and wait afterwards. I don't want to look at these green and red numbers [on the scoreboard]."
Visser's did have to wait a while before victory was confirmed, however. Straight after her race Francesca Lollobrigida (ITA) took on Carlijn Achtereekte (NED). Achtereekte was faster than Visser until the 2200m mark, but the Olympic 3000m champion was not able to maintain her pace over the final two laps.
Lollobrigida even managed to catch up, finishing in 4:01.66 to take the bronze medal. Achtereekte had to settle for fifth place in 4:02.19.
"The pair was very good for me," Lollobrigida said. "I saw that she was getting a bit tired and I knew I had the last inner corner. That was a great motivation to keep chasing in the final lap."
In winning bronze Lollobrigida made amends for a disappointing 10th place in the 1500m on Friday. She said: "I'm very happy with the way I raced today. Yesterday I was feeling really sh*t. I was too tense, not able to skate well. Today I did everything to relax, I even played ping-pong this morning and it worked."
In fact, Lollobrigida was only a whisker away from the silver medal. Natalya Voronina (RUS) skated the exact same time as the Italian but took second place in a photo finish. The Russian, who won a bronze medal at the European Championships two years ago, was happy to have recovered after illness. She said: "I had a health problem in the pre-season and I was ill after Nagano [World Cup in December], so I'm happy with silver in this situation."
Voronina skated in the penultimate pairing, but with Martina Sáblíková (CZE) in the final pair, Visser could not celebrate yet. To Visser's great relief, the multiple World and European champion finished 0.31 seconds short of a place on the podium.
Two days into the tournament, Visser is the only skater to have successfully defended her European title. She said: "I'm super happy about that. I don't like expectations, so it's great that I have lived up to the expectations because I hate to let people down."