By Simon Jennings
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – Four years ago, a Dutch-born Ted-Jan Bloemen made a phone call that changed his destiny and gave Canadian speed skating a powerful new weapon in its arsenal.
After years of trying and failing to settle in a commercial team in the Netherlands, the long-distance specialist, who was born in Leiderdorp in Holland, decided his future lay elsewhere.
Bloemen, who is eligible to race for Canada through his father, called Bart Schouten, a Dutch coach working in the national setup, and asked if he could train in Calgary with an eye on representing Canada at the Winter Games in South Korea.
“Because of how the system works in Holland, if you’re not right away really, really good, it’s hard to find a good team that will support you for more than one season,” Bloemen told Reuters ahead of his first Olympics.
“Because I had to try so hard to find good support, I couldn’t get better any more so I had to find another way to do it. My first choice was to move to Canada and try there, because obviously I’ve got a big affection with the country.”
When the 31-year-old lines up for the 10,000 meters and the 5,000m at the Gangneung Oval, he will do so as the world record holder in both distances, proof that in his case the Netherlands’ loss is very much Canada’s gain.
The Netherlands is easily the world’s most prolific speed skating nation, but that supremacy and the wealth of talent behind it means late bloomers like Bloemen can sometimes slip through the cracks.
“It’s hard to say if talent gets lost (in the Netherlands)because you don’t get to know about it (if it does), right? But I think I am a good example,” Bloemen added.
Bloemen’s arrival had a profound impact on the Canadian team, with his feats in the longer distances filling his team mates with a sense of belief.
“Ted-Jan brought this attitude to the team of like anything is possible – you don’t have to settle for what you think you can do,” said Jordan Belchos, who will race alongside Bloemen in the team pursuit and against him in the 10,000m.
“When he broke the world record that was for me like, “Woah! Yeah, I guess you don’t have to’. No one expected that. Except for him.”
After the world cup season it is clear Bloemen’s main rival for gold in the 10,000m and 5,000m is Sven Kramer, the Dutchman who was dominating the longer distances until Bloemen burst on to the scene.
Both men are the same age but, as Bloemen puts it, their paths to the Olympics could not have been more different.
“For me it’s been an upward battle that’s finally starting to pay out now when I’m 31 years old,” Bloemen said. “Sven Kramer, he’s the same age as me, except he’s been winning everything for the last decade.”
The key, says Bloemen, is trusting himself to perform on the world’s biggest stage.
“I’m trying to keep it really simple,” he added. “The first part is to get in that zone. During the race you try to get into this special state of mind and just let the speed come to you.
“When you succeed it’s like you’re racing within your subconscious. You’ve trained for it, you know what to do and you kind of trust in that. When that works out, you can really get the most out of yourself.”
Underpinning it all is a quiet determination to seize his moment and a belief that fate is on his side.
“I’ve got a lot of love for this team and this country so I’m really excited to represent Canada at the Olympics. I really want to do good and bring some medals home,” he said.
“I feel very grateful about how this all worked out. It’s like it’s meant to be.”
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)