Ice Network

Wüst speeds to gold in fast-paced 3,000 meters

Sábliková runs second; Graf squeaks ahead of Pechstein for bronze
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Ireen Wüst, who won the gold at this distance in Torino but finished seventh in Vancouver, returned to the top of the podium in Sochi, pacing the field with a time of 4:00.34. -Getty Images

The ladies speed skaters had their first race Sunday. Ireen Wüst of the Netherlands won the 3,000 meters, celebrating her third gold medal in three consecutive Olympic Games (3,000 meters in 2006, 1,500 meters in 2010 and 3,000 meters in 2014). 2010 Olympic champion Martina Sábliková of Czech Republic won silver and Olga Graf brought Russia the first speed skating medal of these Olympics, keeping Germany's Claudia Pechstein, 2002 Olympic champion, just off the podium.

Graf started with a modest 20.77, but then she had a very even race. Her laps were 31.5, 31.6, 31.8, 31.8, 31.7, 31.7 and finally a 32.3. This brought her to an astonishing 4:03.47, which was not only the first personal best of the Olympic speed skating tournament -- by almost a second -- but also a new Russian record, improving on Svetlana Vysokova's 4:04.18. This resulted in an explosion of sound, as it was even close to the track record and what appeared to be a medal-winning race.

"I would not say that I feel a lot of emotions right now," Graf said. "The only feeling is that I am tired. I heard the crowd cheering for me, and I did not expect such support from the audience. When I realized that I broke my personal best, it was an incredible feeling."

Sábliková skated and did what was expected of her. Her 20.38 and 31.0 weren't as fast as Pechstein, but she then found a steady pace which she followed to the end: 31.6, 31.8, 31.6, 31.6, 31.7 and 31.9. It brought her to 4:01.94, half a second below the old track record that Wüst had set here last year. Sábliková's pair mate, Poland's Katarzyna Bachleda-Curus, reached 4:06.73 but was later disqualified for crossing the line twice with her skate, a rule that was recently reinforced.

"I am so very happy with the silver medal, as the times for other skaters this year were really fast," Sábliková said. "So, it made me afraid, but I tried to focus on my results and I am happy for silver."

Then, Wüst raced. She had the fastest opening of all, 19.31, and a 30.3 lap, and many feared that this would mean a tough finish, but she went on with 31.2, 31.5, 31.6 and 31.4, increasing her lead on Sábliková to nearly three seconds with two laps to go. Her times dropped only a bit, to 32.1 and 32.7, and she took back the track record again, 4:00.34, only two seconds behind her personal best.

"I had 3.58 in my mind, which I thought was possible," Wüst said. "But, I could see already yesterday that there were difficult conditions; a lot of guys died in the end. My teammate saw that and told me, 'Don't do crazy stuff.' I knew that, but still, my first laps weren't that good; it is hard to hold yourself back, but after four, five laps, I went for it.

"It was tough, but I focused on myself," she continued. "I had seen Sábliková's time, but I did not realize it. I feel disbelief and relief. It is surreal that I managed to get a gold medal again in my third Olympics. I am also relieved, as I experienced huge pressure. I wanted to win, and so did 17 million Dutchies at home. It was a different pressure than I usually have.

"Yesterday I talked to my 5-year-old cousin on the phone. He asked, 'You are going to win gold, right?' I had to say, 'Ehm ... I will do my best.' I didn't want to let him down; it had to be gold."

American Jilleanne Rookard skated in the 10th pair with Graf. Rookard opened fastest with 20.76 and 52.24 and managed an even race of 32 laps until 2,200 meters, but had to let Graf go in the final two laps, where she had a hard time with the tough circumstances, finishing in 4:10.01.

"The ice was a little slower than last year," Rookard said. "But, I was having fun out there. The most stress was just to qualify for the Olympic team. This is what it is all about, the fun part of skating."

Not much was expected of American Anna Ringsred, since she had the slowest personal best of all competitors Sunday and is more of an allrounder, but she ended up 26th, finishing above the cellar.

"It was working ice," Ringsred said. "You have to fight from the beginning, quite different from where I trained, in Calgary or Salt Lake City."