In this event, Christine Nesbitt (CAN) and Kyou-Hyuk Lee (KOR) were crowned ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Champions of 2011. The 40th World Sprint Championships took place in the Dutch skating Mecca – Thialf – in Frisian Heerenveen (NED). For Lee, it was his fourth title, while Nesbitt was the 10th champion in ten years!
Due to the Asian Games, not all the top skaters from Asia were present. Notable in the ladies’ field was the absence of 2010 Champion Sang-Hwa Lee (KOR) and 2009 Champion Beixing Wang (CHN). Eleven personal bests were skated, and two NRs were improved (AUS and LAT).
Twenty-nine skaters participated in the ladies’ competition, with Christine Nesbitt as the real favourite. Dutch skaters Margot Boer, Ireen Wüst, Annette Gerritsen and Laurine van Riessen competed, with German Jenny Wolf, Japanese Nao Kodaira and Heather Richardson from the USA for the remaining podium places. Wolf, as world record holder in the 500m, was expected to win this distance, but back problems had hindered her earlier in the season. She won, but not with the usual margin; her 38.21 was slower than expected. Boer and Kodaira, paired together, both skated 38.28, thus sharing silver. Then followed Richardson, Gerritsen and Nesbitt in 38.51, 38.53 and 38.57 respectively.
In the 1000m, Jenny Wolf didn’t expect too much of her performance, resulting in an almost relaxed race that was however unexpectedly fast. 1:17.36 was her time, and fifth over the distance. The next favourites to start were Boer and Nesbitt. Boer had a better opening, but a mistake cost her a lot of speed, and her attempts to continue with technically sound skating failed, to her visible dismay. Instead, she could only watch as Nesbitt got away. In the final lap, the Canadian took only 29.3 seconds: she finally won in 1:15.01, an improvement of the track record, which stood at 1:15.34. Boer finished in 1:17.47, and thought the final podium out of reach. Kodaira and Richardson finished with times between Wolf and Boer. The other three Dutch skaters finished faster than Wolf: Wüst got silver with 1:16.49, Gerritsen took bronze with 1:16.89 and Van Riessen took fourth place. In the overall classification, Nesbitt had a lead over Wolf that translated to 0.82 of a second in next day’s 500m. Gerritsen, Kodaira and Boer were close behind. Richardson’s 1000m had been less than expected due to her back problems.
On the second day, the times were rather slower. Wolf won in 38.33, and four ladies were close behind: Boer clocked 38.44, Nesbitt had a very good 38.45, and Richardson and Gerritsen then followed with 38.46 and 38.47 respectively. Van Riessen followed with 38.62. The loser was Kodaira, who needed 38.80 and dropped to 6th overall, seeing her chances of reaching the overall podium disappear.
For the 1000m, Nesbitt was safe, but Wolf needed another excellent race to keep her second place in the final classification. But now there was pressure and anticipation, and it didn’t work for her. With 1:19.07 she dropped to 8th overall, behind Ireen Wüst, who had an excellent final 1000m – her 1:15.93, with a 29.4 last lap, was good for Silver over the distance. Her pair-mate Van Riessen had the faster start and managed 1:16.61, keeping Richardson, who skated 1:16.67, off the podium again. Gerritsen and Boer were paired together. Boer needed to beat Gerritsen with 0.02 of a second and was on the way, but then she had two poor strokes on the final straight and the team-mates glided over the finishing line side by side in 1:17.14, which kept Gerritsen in the lead. In the final pair, where Wolf skated so poorly, once more no-one could touch Nesbitt. Her 1:15.39 brought her to the title with 152.220 points, while Gerritsen had 154.015 in total, Boer 154.025, and Richardson finished in fourth with 154.035.
There were 43 participants in the men’s field. The favourite here was Korean Kyou-Hyuk Lee, the champion of 2007, 2008 and 2010. The main competition was due to come from 2009 sprint champion Shani Davis and Dutch Stefan Groothuis, who had really impressive times in the national championships. The outsider was Tae-Bum Mo, Olympic 500m champion and medallist in the 1000m, who had been injured in the first part of the season.
The 500m started with a win for Kyou-Hyuk Lee in 34.92. This gave him a substantial advantage, as Tae-Bum Mo had 35.19 and Stefan Groothuis with 35.21 had his first international podium finish in the 500m with 34.21. Shani Davis also started strong with 35.25. Ryohei Haga was the best Japanese with 35.27, but not strong enough on the 1000 to stay in the top ten. The youngest participant in the men’s competition was 19-year-old Daniel Greig from Australia. He improved the national record with 35.99. One of the few personal bests was for Kjeld Nuis (NED), whose 35.48 was the 8th best time in this field.
In the 1000m, times were a bit slower than expected, but Greig impressed again, with the 12th time in a field that was reduced to 41 skaters after the withdrawal of two Chinese. Six skaters only finished within 1:10. The first to break that barrier was Nuis, with 1:09.88, and later Mo got to 1:09.38, taking over the lead. Denny Morrison (CAN) reached the same time as Nuis. He was paired with Groothuis, who skated away from him from the start. Another really strong race, with a 25.2 first lap and 26.9 final lap, brought Morrison to 1:08.97. Only Davis and Lee could beat that time. Lee opened faster than anyone, while Davis’ opening was a bit slower than Groothuis’. Both had a 25.5 lap to follow, but then even Lee was behind Groothuis. Davis, famous for his last laps, managed 26.7, but it was not enough to beat the time of 1:09.14 for Groothuis. Lee had a 27.6 finish, and got fourth place with 1:09.64 behind Mo. In the ranking, Groothuis had taken the lead with 69.695 points, 0.05 ahead of Lee after the first day. Shani Davis was third, 0.08 seconds behind Lee on the 500 and Mo was 0.06 behind him. Nuis was fifth in the ranking but he was 0.73 behind leader Groothuis. Anything could happen in the top four.
In the 500m on Sunday, there were two national records: for Australia (35.71) and Latvia (Harald Silovs skated 36.76). Dutch Jan Smeekens had a much better race than the first day, finishing in 34.99. Of the top four skaters, Davis finished 9th in 35.40, which was disappointing for him, whereas Tae-Bum Mo finished on the podium again with 35.01. Then Lee and Groothuis skated, both eager to show their best. Lee opened in a fast 9.62, and with 34.77 he set a new track record. Groothuis showed some technical flaws from the start and opened in only 10.01, but finished in 35.56 – a respectable time, but having lost too much dropped him to fourth in the classification. Then it was announced that Groothuis was disqualified as his skate crossed the line more than once. Disbelief, anger, sadness all went through his mind, but after a while a protest from his coach was accepted: the first time the skate did not entirely cross the line, so it didn’t count. Groothuis was allowed to skate the 1000m after all.
And he did well, with 1:08.82. This time he was not the only one below 1:09. He beat Mo, but the Korean managed 1:08.95 and stayed ahead of Groothuis on points. Davis won in 1:08.76, which kept him ahead of Groothuis in the rankings, but didn’t bring him higher than Mo. Kyou-Hyuk Lee did what he had to do, finishing the 1000 in 1:09.48, 6th in the distance, but it kept him in the lead. 139.255 made him world champion for the fourth time, Mo took the silver with 139.365 and Davis took bronze with 139.600; for Groothuis the fourth place was left with 139.665 points. With 140.645, Dutchman Kjeld Nuis was the best of the rest.