(Reuters) - Dutch speedskater Ireen Wust’s haul of five medals in Sochi equaled the biggest individual tally at a single Winter Games and cast her amongst the Olympic greats, but it offered no guarantees about her funding to carry on.
The 28-year-old was lauded with awards, accolades and meetings with Dutch royalty upon winning the 3,000 meters and team pursuit golds at the Adler Arena in February, along with silvers in the 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000m as the revered Dutch took 23 of the 36 medals available on the oval.
Eye-catching for most, but not for the slight woman from Goirle, in the south of the country, who targeted the feat after taking home five medals from the World Single Distance Championships on the same Sochi ice a year earlier.
Wust’s tally equaled the Winter Olympic best mark set by Finnish speedskater Clas Thunberg and Norwegian Roald Larsen in 1924 and matched by fellow skaters American Eric Heiden (1980) and Canadian Cindy Klassen (2006) as well as five cross-country skiers.
Her achievements were lapped up by some sections of the American media, who championed the skater they labeled “openly gay” in the face of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s controversial “anti-gay propaganda” law.
Wust, who was dating a man at the time, received a “cuddle” from Putin following her 3,000m victory and questioned why reporters were so interested in her sexuality.
With the hullabaloo over, she returned to the Netherlands “feeling like a zombie” after giving everything she had on the ice to eclipse swimmer Inge de Bruijn as the most successful Dutch Olympian only to be met with a hammer blow.
“There were a lot of changes that went on in Dutch skating with teams quitting, commercial teams disappeared,” she said in a telephone interview earlier this month after being named Reuters Sports Woman of the Year.
“It changed a lot and then my coach and me, we couldn’t find a sponsor.”
Wust, who took up skating at 11 and has a rink named after her in Tilburg, weighed up her options. She made the decision to split from Gerard Kemkers, who she hailed for her success, and moved from the TVM side she had skated with for almost a decade to join Team Continu.
“Yeah it’s fun to be in a new environment with new people, different training, different look on skating so for me it was a really good refreshment that I needed,” she said.
A brief three-week off season and it was back on her bicycle racking up the key kilometers at the start of another four-year cycle that she hopes will end with more gold in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“I want to do one more Olympics,” she said, adding 2019 as a likely retirement date.
A repeat of the Sochi five in South Korea would draw her level with the most successful Winter Olympian of all time, Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who won a 13th biathlon medal in Russia.
Perhaps a more realistic aim would be to win two medals in and overtake Claudia Pechstein (nine) to become the most decorated Olympic speedskater.
“I don’t know, it would be a really big honor if I could achieve it,” said Wust, who also won 3,000m gold at the 2006 Turin Games and the 1,500m title four years later in Vancouver.
“Of course you want to do more and win more but it’s like four years until the next Olympics and there are still really nice championships in between so first I want to win those.”
Editing by Julien Pretot