(Reuters) - Martina Sablikova was dubbed the ‘Queen of Skating’ after her double gold medal success at the Vancouver Games four years ago and the Czech speed skater has no plans to abdicate her throne in Sochi.
Sablikova, 26, was given the moniker by then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge after she won the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters titles at the Richmond Olympic Oval in Canada.
The slightly-built Czech also took bronze in the 1,500 meters in Vancouver with her fluid, gliding style and acceleration in the corners helping her overcome a cold and fatigue to become the competition’s leading racer.
“Vancouver was for me incredible. It was like fairy-tale story,” Sablikova told Reuters ahead of the Sochi Games which begin on February7.
“When I heard it (Rogge’s comments), it was amazing. For me, no words to say how happy I was and I am because when I read it again then I feel the same feeling like in Vancouver.”
Sablikova’s efforts made it the most successful Winter Olympics for her country, which had never before won more than one gold at a Winter Games - let alone one in speed skating.
The three previous Czech Republic gold medals came in cross-country skiing (2006 Turin Games), freestyle skiing (2002 Salt Lake City) and Ice hockey (1998 Nagano), while ski jumping (1968 Grenoble) and figure skating (1972 Sapporo) provided Czechoslovakia’s only Winter golds.
Without any heritage in the sport, let alone an oval rink in the country, Sablikova’s achievements in Canada four years ago were all the more remarkable.
Having given up basketball as she struggled with the dynamics of a team game, she was encouraged to give skating a try with coach Petr Novak in a village about 135 kilometers (84 miles) southeast of Prague.
Novak had Sablikova riding a bicycle, running, and doing special jumping exercises to build her conditioning around her rural home, before travelling to Italy and Germany to work on the ice.
Despite the obstacles in her path, Sablikova’s drive has led her to 10 world championship titles and four European titles.
Young Czech speedskaters now have a role model but still wait for an oval to train on.
“In Czech there are now so many children who want to try skating but there isn’t a skating oval to use in Czech,” Sablikova said.
“We have a lot of speedskaters but everybody from politics said we don’t have money to make a skating oval.”
However, it is injuries rather than the lack of facilities that have proved to be Sablikova’s biggest obstacle.
Last year her back caused her problems while a groin injury was to blame for her last placed finish in the 1500m World Cup event in Salt Lake City in November.
Sablikova says she feels ‘good now’, though, and results have confirmed that theory. She leads the 3,000m/5,000m World Cup standings after three wins in four events this year.
The 3,000m race she did lose was in Calgary to German Claudia Pechstein, who Sablikova expects will provide a stern challenge in Russia along with the host athletes and Dutch competitors.
Her own form, though, is what counts.
“It’s an incredible feeling skating good before an Olympics but we all prepare for Sochi. Only there we will see who has good form,” the 5,000m world record holder said before offering more on her own preparations.
“I think all things are the same like before Vancouver, just the regeneration takes a little bit more because I am older.
“I think I will skate three events but I am not sure, but two for sure.”
The 1,500m is the likely event to be dropped and depending on Sablikova’s level of success in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, other events could be incorporated into her plans in the future.
A talented road cyclist, who was national champion in 2010 and 2013, and keen inline skater, Sablikova has an opportunity to become one of the few athletes to win medals in both Summer and Winter Games.
“I can’t answer, we will see after this year and how I will feel myself. This (Sochi) is the most important thing,” she said.
Editing by Julien Pretot