ISU European Speed Skating Championships –Collalbo (ITA)
The European Championships were back outdoors in the South-Tirolean village of Collalbo where in 2007 Martina Sábliková won her first European title. She was also last year’s champion; Sábliková was aiming for her third title.
The ladies’ competition had 2007 and 2010 champion Martina Sábliková (CZE) as absolute favourite. Other candidates for the podium were 2008 champion Ireen Wüst (NED) and Dutch champion Marrit Leenstra. Stephanie Beckert (GER) with her impressive long distances could not compete due to back problems. And the former top German ladies ended their careers and have not been replaced by equally strong contenders.
Karolina Erbanová (CZE) won the 500m in a fast 39.29. Last year, she won as well. Yekaterina Shikhova, one of the three fast Russian ladies, fell on this distance. Leenstra was second in 39.98 and Yekaterina Lobysheva (RUS) took third place with 40.13.
Of the main favourites for the title, the 5th place of Martina Sáblíková with 40.31 virtually gave her the title, as Ireen Wüst, normally the better on the short distances, was behind her with a sixth place and 40.49.
The 3000 meters were heavy on the windy track, and this was a situation in which Norwegian Mari Hemmer could show her strength. Her 4:20.95 stood up for a long time, until Sábliková skated. The Czech lady, who experienced some groin problems as result of her 500m, didn’t show any weakness in the 3000m and won the distance in 4:11.35. Only three more skaters were faster than Hemmer, and they were Dutch. Marrit Leenstra was the only skater who managed to skate less than 10 seconds slower than her personal best time, and her 4:17.66 brought her on the podium. Diane Valkenburg lost a little to Leenstra and posted 4:19.51. Ireen Wüst started daringly fast and needed less time than Sábliková for the first 2200m, but then she too slowed down and was happy with her second place on the distance with 4:13.40.
In the ranking after the first day, the reigning champion was in the lead with 82.203 points, and advantage over Wüst (82.723 points) of 1.56 second on the 1500m and her favourite 5000 still to go. Leenstra was third with 82.923 points and then the gap to Jorien Voorhuis (NED), Lobysheva and Valkenburg was substantial.
On the 1500m the next day, times far above 2 minutes showed that circumstances were tough. Julia Skokova (RUS) managed with 2:04.85 to climb two places overall and thus qualify for the final 5000m at the expense of German Jennifer Bay (9th on the 3000). Erbanová then took the lead with 2:03.87, with three pairs to go. Lobysheva lost her pair to Valkenburg, whose 2:01.49 against 2:02.70 moved Valkenburg like the other Dutch ladies in the ranking ahead of the Russian. In the pre-last pair, Leenstra increased the gap with her followers by skating 2:00.95; Voorhuis had 2:02.04. The main duel was in the final pair, where Wüst had to make up 1.56 second on Sábliková. She attacked from the start, used her pairmate on the crossover to make speed and with one lap to go, she had enough difference to take over the lead. However, in the final lap Sábliková came back with a 32.2 laptime (against 33.0 for Wüst) and her 2:00.37 brought her silver on the distance, while Wüst won it, the only time below 2 minutes: 1:59.61. The advantage for Sábliková on the 5000m was still 2.67, and she is the Olympic Champion on the 5000m. Leenstra was third, 9.13 behind Sábliková on the 5000m, then the gap between Leenstra and the next two, Voorhuis and Valkenburg, was over 15 seconds. For the first time since 1970, when the European championships for ladies were introduced, no German lady made the final distance.
The final distance, as expected, did not change the order on the overall podium. After her fifth place in the 3000m, Hemmer now finished in 7:26.62 in a good first pair together with Austrian Anna Rokita, who made this distance thanks to a 7th place on the 3000. Rokita had with 7:27.40 a career-high fifth place finish, praise worthy for a skater from a small team. The time of Hemmer was good for fourth place, and she finished seventh overall, one ahead of her compatriot Ida Njåtun. Three Norwegian ladies qualified for the World Championships, which is unique. “All my life I heard I wasn’t good enough”, said Hemmer, “but now we actually start believing we can do something”. Diane Valkenburg was the first to beat Hemmer’s time and reached the distance podium with 7:24.69. Leenstra with 7:28 was slower, but had built enough of an advantage over the first three races to keep the lead in the ranking with Sábliková and Wüst to come. At times Wüst starts so fast, that she can hardly finish a good 5000, but this time, in spite of a daring start, and leading the pair for the first part of the race, she managed to keep skating well towards the end. Wüst finished in second place with 7:18.70 but there was no measure on Sábliková, whose groin injury did not trouble her in this slower distance. With 7:07.78 she won both distance and championships. For a short moment she was confused; the bell for the last lap rang a lap too soon, and she realized she should finish in the wrong lane that way, and feared she had made a mistake and would be disqualified. Much to her relief, everything was done to make her realize it wasn’t her mistake and that the bell just rang too soon. “It made me very nervous, but now I am very content.”, she commented afterwards. Wüst had been mourning over her poor 500m race, but now realized that she had needed an impossible time in hindsight to beat Sábliková. “All praise to her! I just can’t stand to lose.”
photo Getty Images