First of all, welcome to all my new blog visitors! If you are here because of my freshly Fresh Pressed post, I’d like to mention that that’s one of many that I’ve been posting as a travel journal of a trip my husband and I recently took to Europe, visiting Paris and watching my brother skate in the speed skating World Single Distance Championships. If you’d like to read more about our trip, the travel journal starts at “Spring Vacation” on my Archives page.
This post is another installment – about our Friday afternoon watching Jonathan skate his 5000m.
My usual posts are more about our every-day lives, and while John and I enjoy our daily life, it’s not quite as thrilling as being on vacation. Apart from my blog getting Freshly Pressed this morning, which was very exciting for me, the highlights of my day today have been (1) not getting rained on when I walked Maxwell this morning, and (2) trying out our brand new vegetable peeler on a lunchtime carrot. (The peeler had an excellently smooth and fluid cutting feel; with its ceramic blade and dishwasher-safeness, I highly recommend it if you’re looking for one.) (The carrot was also excellent.)
So – back to Heerenveen! After our late-morning excursion at the Sky Surfer, we ate lunch back at Jonathan’s hotel, during which I failed to take photos of anything except for the table centerpiece …
… then we headed straight for the oval. John and I were worried about parking, anticipating a much bigger crowd than the previous day’s – but we needn’t have, as we ended up unintentionally bribing the attendant to let us park in the actual Thialf parking lot. I’m not sure if it was a language-barrier issue, or we just encountered a bribable parking officer, but where we had been unequivocally turned away the previous day, we were ushered to a nice spot on the grass after the officer pointed to our 5-euro note, grabbed it, and waved us inside.
Since we’d waited a little late to actually plan this trip, our ticket situation had been tricky for the weekend days of the meet. It’s a huge event among Dutch speedskating fans, and most of the tickets sold out quite early; on this particular day, we had not been able to buy enough seats for the five of us, so John, Ryan, and I were ticketed in the standing-room-only corners, i.e. the party zone of the oval.
A skating oval is comprised of two long straightaways, the front stretch and the back stretch, and the ends (or corners). The front stretch is where splits are taken during the races and where the finish line is located, and where tickets are expensive or completely unattainable and many seats remain unoccupied until the most exciting pairs come up. On the back stretch, coaches skate along and shout encouragement while holding up their skaters’ previous lap’s split times as the the skaters switch lanes (or unfortunately don’t, as in a particularly regrettable occurrence); the back stretch is the middle-class seating area of the spectators’ hierarchy.
Then there are the corners – where the skaters build momentum for the coming straightaway – and the cement ledges are jam-packed with rowdy and excited fans. They keep the excitement going in the building, starting waves and cheers and belting out “Sweet Caroline” or “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” (hand movements and all) at the tops of their lungs, almost loud enough to drown out the accompanying oompah band. Those fans aren’t there just to watch a skating meet, or to cheer on their favorites, or see who will win; they’re there to have FUN.
We’ve always had seats before, so we weren’t sure what to expect – we’d only seen the corner crowds from a distance. But we arrived a little too late, as you can see from the approach to the corner doors – almost no one was left outside, except us and other stragglers wearing Dutch-orange tiger tails.
When we stepped inside, we saw a wall of people. The men’s 1000 was just beginning, and we had hoped to watch – two Americans, both friends of Jonathan’s were skating and we would have liked to cheer for them. The concrete steps had filled up completely, and the flat area at the top was already piled several rows deep. It was also about 87 degrees in there, which is Too Hot for my usual speedskating outfit – wool long underwear top and bottom, thick wool socks, wool mittens, a wool scarf, a jacket. We piled in at the back of the crowd trying to get a view of the ice, but I soon realized I’d never make it crowding in with other people like that – so instead, I moved to the outer edge of the pathway, standing on my tip toes and cooling my back against the wall. I could see the overhead screen and a sliver of the ice, so it really was about as good a view as I’d be able to get.
As I stood there alone, watching as best I could, a Dutch man came up and tried to make conversation. He said something to me in Dutch, to which I replied with apologetic shrug – “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Dutch.”
“Oh, you speak English? Where are you from?”
“I’m from America, from the West Coast.”
“YOU’RE FROM AMERICA? AND YOU CAME HERE? TO WATCH SPEEDSKATING?”
I quickly learned that he was a gregarious fellow, and that his voice thundered when he was surprised. There certainly are some Americans who travel to watch speedskating, although a very small number; most of the non-Dutch spectators seem to be Korean or Norwegian.
“Yup, I came to watch speedskating.”
“My brother’s a skater.”
“Ohhhhhhhh. OK, I see. So, who is your brother?”
“JONATHAN KUCK? JONATHAN KUCK IS YOUR BROTHER? YOU’RE JONATHAN KUCK’S SISTER? AND YOU’RE BACK HERE WAY IN THE BACK? WHY AREN’T YOU IN VIP SEATING? I WOULD THINK YOU WOULD SIT IN THE VIP AREA!”
I apologize for the all-caps paragraph, but it’s the only way I know how to get across the way the guy was yelling at me at the top of his voice in surprise. As I mentioned before, Jonathan is a celebrity in Thialf, and even though my new friend knew that speedskating was not a major sport in America (given his initial surprise that I was even there) he somehow thought, I guess, that the top American skaters might still be given some sort of sports-star perks anyway. (Traveling-companion tickets, maybe? I’d go for that!)
My new buddy then started talking (in Dutch) to his other friends, pointing at me and yelling from time to time, presumably indicating his surprise; he also promised to come back before the 5k began to help us push our way down to the front, so we could actually see the race and cheer for Jonathan. I was extremely grateful for his offer, because the wall of humans seemed impenetrable – we agreed to meet at that point during the re-ice break preceding the 5000s.
The 1000s ended with Shani winning a Bronze, and we noted happily that during the re-ice break, a large portion of the corner crowd headed outside for drinks, smoking breaks, and snacks, so the three of us formulated a plan. During the next set of races – the women’s 1500 – we went outside to pick up some dinner food, hoping that at the next re-ice the crowd would dissipated enough that we’d be able to worm our way to the front. And it worked – as soon as the 1500 John led the charge, and we made it down to the second row. Perfect!
(On a side note, to the Friendly and Outgoing Dutch Guy whom we ditched – I’m sorry we left, but we took our opportunity when we saw it. Thanks anyway for your kind offer!)
The view was much better – we could see the whole track and the center-ice prep area, and had plenty of space to observe and admire the skating fans’ outfits. I’m not sure how the guy in the windmill shirt sneaked in, actually, without getting laughed out of town – almost everyone else wears bright colors, crazy hats, and ORANGE. Either that, or jail-break costumes….
As the Zambonis left the ice, the skaters began to prepare for their races. Jonathan came out for his on-ice warm up quite early, and I snapped a few photos of him. Here he is rounding the corner, in the blue warm-up lane…
Usually we try to wave or shout to let him know where we are in the stands, but it was hopeless in such a crowd – I don’t think he ever saw us that day.
The racing began well, although much of it is a blur to me. I sometimes become anxious and nervous before Jonathan races, and it’s hard to focus on what’s going on around me. A few things stand out, though:
– cheering for Brian when his pair came up; he’s on the inner lane in this photo:
– the re-ice breaks, which were such a relief for our feet since we had a chance to sit down during each one; John and I particularly were grateful for them after the many miles of walking we’d done in Paris, during the first half of our vacation.
– and an incident that occured during one of the zamboni periods. Suddenly, as we were sitting and resting our feet during the first re-icing, I noticed that the mass of humanity was moving closer and closer to a certain point by the railing….
… and soon, a murmur reached us – “Joey Cheek, Joey Cheek, Joey Cheek…” In fact, it turned out that Joey Cheek indeed was standing at the edge of the rail, signing autographs and letting people take photos with him. It was fun to see how excited all of the fans were – and another stark reminder of how huge skating is in Holland compared to the US. I imagine if I said “Joey Cheek” to a random sampling of people I meet around town in the next month, maybe one? or none? would recognize the name. But here, the thrill was palpable.
Finally, Jonathan’s pair was up. He was in the 3rd-to-last pair, originally paired to skate with Havard Bokko, a skater on a similar level with Jonathan; unfortunately, Havard was sick that weekend and pulled out of the 5k, so his fellow Norwegian teammate Sverre Lunde Pedersen skated in the pair instead. He’s a good skater, but young and not quite at Jonathan’s level. Having a well-matched pair is useful, both for increased motivation during the race and to be able to get a good draft during the lane-change in the back straightaway, so this new pairing was stressful – but Jonathan’s skated with slow pairs before, and managed alright – plus you never know when a young skater will have a crazily fast breakout race.
As the race began, Jonathan’s lap times were in the low 29-second range, which is an excellent pace; we were torn between being very excited, and worried that he might not be able to keep up the pace. We kept screaming and cheering, and being thrilled as each split until the last two came up under 30 seconds; everyone around us cheered right alongside. (The Dutch, for the most part, are friendly and outgoing and had been talking with us during the breaks, and knew that Jonathan was our brother.)
His final time was excellent – a personal best, 6:16.28.
But there were still two pairs to go, with four of the fastest men, so I had about 13 more minutes to hold my breath. To try to keep it short – after the next pair, Bob de Jong (an amazing skater, period – but especially amazing for being 35 – from the Netherlands) had beaten Jonathan’s time by a full second, but Alexis Contin had fallen behind and Jonathan was still in second.
At this point man next to John began to congratulate him, but appended the contratulations with “but he’s not going to make the podium – he’ll end up fourth – it’ll go one, two, three for the Dutch. One, two, three. He just won’t make it on the podium. Nice try, though!” He was referring to two remaining Dutch skaters, Sven Kramer and Jan Blokhuisen.
Sven started out fast and stayed fast, it also looked for most of the race like Jan would stay ahead of Jonathan – and with every lap that passed John’s neighbor leaned over and shouted “one, two, three! Sorry!” But with three laps to go, Jan’s splits began to creep over 30 seconds, and at two laps to go, John’s neighbor left off his constant refrain. And then it was over – Sven won by a wide margin, Bob placed second, and Jan couldn’t hold on – Jonathan had won 3rd place, which is his first-ever individual championship medal!
We happily high-fived and celebrated with the other fans around us, and accepted the congratulations offered, most of which were very gracious. John’s “one, two, three” neighbor even extended one – “Well, congratulation, congratulations. I thought it would be top-three Dutch!” (Oh really? We never would have guessed.)
A moment later, he leaned over and said – “But you know, three seconds is a long time.”
Well thank you, Mr. Speedskating Fan, but Jonathan was not even two and a half seconds behind Sven. You better watch out next year!
As the crowd cheered, Sven did a slow victory lap, waving and collecting stuffed animals thrown to him.
The medal ceremony followed immediately – it was very exciting to see Jonathan on the podium. He looked quite happy. Here he is, about to accept his medal!
You can’t see the actual scene very well at all – the podium is set up just below the screen in the photo above – but you can see him on the big screen above, along with the whole crowd around us cheering and clapping for him.
Although I’d be willing to bet they woudn’t have cheered for his medal half so loudly if he’d displaced their beloved Sven in first place.
Jonathan’s medal was definitely the best part of the experience, but watching from the corner was huge fun in itself. The energy and excitement are nothing like being in the seats, and the atmosphere of enjoyment is much different. Evidently it continued into the night – as we left the rink, we saw that it was outfitted with colored lights and Meatloaf (Paradise By The Dashboard Light) blasting from the speakers, and people were dancing (and drinking) and seemed set up to keep the party going for who-knows-how-long.
It’s a polar-opposite feel from most of the other meets I’ve seen.
I think it’s an experience I’m happy to have only one time, though; we were very thankful to sit down the following day.
The rest of our evening was spent having light snacks/Second Dinner back at the hotel, and reveling in our happiness for Jonathan. All in all, it was an excellent conclusion to another excellent and fun day!