“When I was only a few months old, my mother already took me on a horseback.” Antoinette de Jong smiles when she’s talking about horses. Had she not become an Olympic Speed Skater, she would definitely have pursued an Olympic career in equestrian events.
“I grew up with horses,” De Jong says. The 22-year-old Dutch Speed Skating prodigy comes from Rottum, a village near Heerenveen, the Speed Skating capital in the Netherlands situated in the northern province of Friesland, and home of the famous Thialf Speed Skating stadium.
“My grandfather used to breed Friesian horses and my mother was an equestrian athlete. I got my first pony when I was four years old. I competed and won a lot in equestrian events as a kid,” De Jong says. But she also started Speed Skating at a young age.
“When I was little we had natural ice in Friesland and there was a canal at the back of our house, where I used to go skating. When I first got onto the ice, my parents wanted me to skate behind a chair [the common way too teach Dutch kids how to skate], but I did not want that chair because I knew how to skate instantly. People asked me to join a race at Thialf. That’s how I started Speed Skating.
“I loved Speed Skating, but I used to consider equestrian my number one sport. When I was young, I was able to do both sports, but at age 15 I had to make a choice. It was just too much of a good thing. Sometimes I had two competitions in one day and I almost fainted on the ice with fatigue because I had to get up so early.”
“My parents always supported me, but when it came to the point that I had to make a choice it was up to me. I chose Speed Skating at the time, because I couldn’t delay a Speed Skating career. If I wanted it, I had to do it straight away. But in the back of my mind I always kept the options open to return to equestrian, which I will definitely do after my Speed Skating career is over.”
Time to watch reality
Henk Gemser was De Jong’s first important Speed Skating coach. The former Dutch national coach used to train kids in Heerenveen.
“Speed Skating used to come naturally to me. As a kid I never really trained a lot. I never really thought a lot about my technique either. Henk Gemser taught me how to stand up straight on my skates. He filmed my skating. I thought I did pretty good, but when I saw the footage and I heard Henk’s comment’s, I felt like I couldn’t skate at all. I thought: ‘Is that me? Am I really that bad?’ It was horrible to watch. Henk advised me to train my ankles. He gave me the tools to do that and on the ice I had to skate behind a rack to work on my technique. I was ashamed to do that, but it worked out well in the end.”
Gemser was the first in a series of important coaches, who helped De Jong become the Speed Skater she is now. De Jong won the Dutch allround and sprint junior titles at age fifteen and she moved on. In the Friesian selection she learned a lot from coach Frits Wouda, and pretty soon she entered the Dutch national youth selection with coach Erik Bouwman.
“Erik has made me the allround Speed Skater I am now. He told me that I was fit for the 3000m, which I did not believe at first, because it used to be my worst distance. He really took me to a next level,” De Jong says.
At age 17 De Jong makes her debut in the ISU World Cup, finishing seventh in the 3000m on home ice in Heerenveen.
“It all came pretty fast. The next year I broke the World Junior Record in the 3000m twice, first in Calgary and later in Salt Lake City. I also qualified for the Sochi Olympic Games later that season. At such a young age it was fantastic to skate at the Olympics, the biggest sport event in the world. I was super nervous at the start of my race. Despite having skated well throughout the year, things did not work out well at the games. It was a huge disappointment at the time.”
After Sochi De Jong signed a contract at Team Clafis, with coach Jillert Anema.
“It seemed to be a good choice at the time, but it did not work out. With Erik Bouwman I had a coach I trusted fully and that’s how I started with my new coach too. I was 19 years old. This coach had built champions so why would I question his methods? But it just did not work for me. We did lots of training on bicycles. I was pretty good on the bike and even outsprinted the boys in the team, but you don’t win Speed Skating races on a bike and on the ice things became worse and worse. I lost a lot of weight and I did not grow any muscles, because we didn’t do any weight training. When I questioned this, nobody listened. I stumbled from injury to injury and slowly lost faith in my own body. Although I had a two-year-contract, I knew I had to change. We managed to terminate the contract after one year and I could move to Justlease with coach Rutger Tijssen.”
With Tijssen De Jong rebuilt her confidence, and with the PyeongChang Olympic Games in sight, the 22-year-old started the season with her maiden individual World Cup gold in Heerenveen in November. Four years after her Olympic debut, De Jong has become a seasoned athlete.
“The most important thing I learned over the years is to feel what’s good for me and what’s not. I know what I need and I know which people I need to make me perform at the top of my abilities. It’s still one months until the Olympic Games. I believe that what I do at the moment, is what’s best for me. Everyone is preparing for the most important event in four years and everyone wants to be at the top of their game in PyeongChang. It’s going to be a great battle, tough but fun. I love challenges.”