After a few wonderful days last week, it seems the Dutch weather gods have decided to gift us with at least one more icy blast of winter weather before spring. There have been snow flurries here in Tilburg four out of the last five days! Luckily, we had planned the perfect outing to take advantage of the winter atmosphere: a trip to the 2013 Essent ISU Speed Skating World Cup Final in Heerenveen.
The Dutch are known for their love of skating. When the canals freeze over (which happens more often than one would expect), the entire country takes to the natural ice as a form of alternative transportation. It should come as no surprise, then, that skating is a popular competitive sport in the Netherlands. And out of all the sports contested on ice, long-track speed skating reigns supreme.
The Speed Skating World Cup is an international competition organized by the International Skating Union (ISU) and held in multiple cities throughout the season. The competition structure is somewhat similar to the ATP Tour in tennis, where points are awarded to the winners of individual disciplines at every event weekend, and the overall points leader is declared the winner at the end of the season. Thialf Ice Stadium in Heerenveen, recognized as one of the fastest indoor ice rinks in the world, was the venue for the first and last World Cup events of this season. We made the two hour journey up north to Heerenveen, in the northern province of Friesland, for the final day of the 2012-2013 competition on March 10.
Walking into the stadium, one would be forgiven for thinking it was a national competition rather than an international one, because the entire crowd was a sea of orange—and the stands were PACKED. The Dutch sure do love to show their support in their blaze orange clothing at sporting events, and this skating competition was no exception. I was happy to see one small American flag flying on the opposite side of the stadium. I can always count on finding at least a little American pride wherever I am in the world!
There was plenty to cheer for during the event. We watched the 500-meter, 1500-meter, and mass starts for both men and women. I had never heard of the majority of the skaters, so I naturally cheered for whomever Willem was cheering against. You know, just to make things interesting (he never finds that as funny as I do). When the 1500-meter races started, I was surprised to hear one name I did recognize: Shani Davis, the U.S. Winter Olympic gold medalist. Not only was he competing the day we were there, but he also happens to hold the current track records at Thialf Stadium in the 1000- and 1500-meter events. Davis won the bronze in the 1500-meter event on the day we were there, but was 5th overall in the points standings so he just missed a place on the podium. I came to the stadium so that my Dutch boyfriend could introduce me to one of the favorite Dutch pastimes, but I ended up getting the added bonus of seeing one of the U.S. speed skating greats in the process!
Watching indoor speed skating may not compare to the excitement of the Elfstedentocht, but until it is cold enough for that legendary event to be held again, the World Cup is a fine substitute to whet the Dutch speed skating appetite.