From the very start of the 2018/19 season, Suzanne Schulting’s form looked ominous for her opponents. Having won a gold medal at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, the Dutch skater’s confidence levels were at their absolute peak. And after a summer in which she had trained “unbelievably hard”, she’d never looked physically sharper.
Suzanne Schulting (NED) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Coming round the final corner of the Ladies’ 1000m final at the opening ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating meeting in Calgary, Canada, Schulting left clear air between herself and Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS), in second place, and Veronique Pierron (FRA) in third. She looked unbeatable; on another level to the rest. She added the 1500m title that weekend – this time ahead of Courtney Lee Sarault of Canada – and the message to the field was clear: catch me if you can.
Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS) Suzanne Schulting (NED) and Veronique Pierron (FRA) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (CAN) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Catch her they couldn’t. In Schulting’s favorite distance, the 1000m, she won every ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating final that she contested (Calgary, Salt Lake City, Almaty, Dresden). She topped the 1000m rankings with over 25% more points than her closest rival (Prosvirnova), and was the overall top-ranked racer in the 1500m, too.
Heading to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the 44th ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships, Schulting could have every confidence in becoming the first Dutchwoman to win a gold medal – and only the second-ever European to win the overall title, after Elise Christie’s heroics in 2017.
Only one racer could stop her, it seemed: Republic of Korea’s Choi Min Jeong. The three-time overall ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Champion hadn’t been at her best this season, mainly due to injury. But she possessed the race smarts and experience to outfox the Dutch powerhouse on the biggest stage of the season.
Choi Min Jeong (KOR) and Suzanne Schulting (NED) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
Schulting’s bid to become World Champion in Sofia started with disaster. In the semifinal of the 1500m, she was penalized for a lane change. Disqualified, she wouldn’t be making it through to the final, where crucial overall points were on offer. Choi collected them instead.
Schulting left the rink in tears, distraught: had a silly error cost her the dream she’d worked so hard for all season?
An unexpected source of succor arrived that afternoon. Nobody expected Schulting to win the 500m: she was ranked eighth in the sprint race across the season, a distance dominated by specialists including Poland’s Natalia Maliszewska.
Natalia Maliszewska (POL) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
But perhaps powered by a sense of injustice from the 1500m (“I didn’t think it was a foul”), Schulting thundered around the track and picked up a rare bronze medal in the distance – and some crucial overall points.
“The competition is open again,” she said afterwards. “It’s great for me that I take some points. The day started badly and then got a lot better.”
Meanwhile, Lara van Ruijven (NED) had made the piece of history that everybody expected Schulting to create: in winning the 500m, she was the first Dutchwoman ever to win a gold medal at the World Championships.
“My dream came true and I can’t believe it, I have to cry,” Van Ruijven said afterwards. “I knew I had the power to win today, so I really went for it.”
Day two dawned and Schulting knew what she had to do: win her favored 1000m, and then the 3000m super final, and she would be overall champion.
She did it in style. Schulting started the 1000m at the front, and stayed there thanks to her raw power. And in an incredibly tense 3000m, dueling throughout with Choi, she made her move on the penultimate corner, speeding through to victory.
“I am incredibly happy right now,” the jubilant racer said after taking the title. “It’s bizarre, incredible. I won this because I trained so, so hard last summer. This really counts.
“After my Olympic title at PyeongChang over 1000m, I wanted to prove that I am not a one-day fly [one-season wonder]. I won so many races this year, I won the European title, so that encouraged me to come to Sofia and finish with the World title.”
It was the crowning moment for undoubtedly the stand-out Short Track athlete of the season – male or female. Whether Schulting can push on and create a Choi-style dynasty, winning one World Championship after the next, remains to be seen.
Her rival was graceful in defeat. “Suzanne is very strong,” the Korean conceded. “She has improved her start, which is very fast, and she has a lot of power. She is also very calm mentally, which helps her a lot. It is a very tough Ladies’ field, that is not easy to win. I like having good rivals, and them being so good makes me improve.”
For Dutch skating, the bar has been raised.