GANGNEUNG, South Korea — An all-orange medal podium isn’t really that surprising at the Olympic speedskating oval anymore. After all, the Dutch had four sweeps at the Sochi Games four years ago.
But to see Carlijn Achtereekte towering over two-time 3,000-meter champion Ireen Wust and her anointed successor Antoinette de Jong, that was stunning indeed.
In another jaw-dropping performance from the Dutch on the first day of the Olympic speedskating program, they already raised expectations that their record 23-medal haul from Sochi could be within reach.
“It is incredible to have three of the girls on the podium,” said Achtereekte, an early starter who waited and watched in disbelief for an hour as none of her rivals could match her time.
By then, she was in the stands with her dad Gerard, who quickly had a premonition his daughter would fly home with gold — a color of medal she had never won at a major championship.
“I sat with my dad and he was totally crazy,” she said. “He already acted as if I got gold and I had to tell him, ‘There are still three races to go.’ I needed to calm my father more that I had to calm myself.”
Considering her stature in a star-filled team, some giddy feelings were in order. Sidestepped by the media for bigger favorites, she was able to prepare in peace, setting precise lap targets that she met almost to perfection. Almost, because she even went about .20 or .30 seconds faster than her coach had set out.
It turned out to be the difference between gold and silver.
The 28-year-old Dutchwoman had to start in the first part of the program among the also-rans. That is where a career marred by illness and injury had left her. Giving it another go for Pyeongchang, she contacted top coach Jac Orie more in hope than anything else, knowing his skills to mold Olympic champions.
Amazingly, she went under 4 minutes, which only two other women had done at sea level, and her time of 3 minutes, 59.21 seconds was the best of the night.
“The athletes took me into account, but not the press and media,” she said. “I love that role. I’m good at laying down a time. I managed that now and it has paid off.”
The event seemed set to give Wust a third Olympic gold medal in the 3,000, but she finished .08 seconds behind Achtereekte after struggling through the final lap.
Wust long looked poised to claim the title as she floated over the ice. She went into the last lap with a strong chance, but technique gave way to fatigue and gold turned to silver.
“On that last lap the man with the hammer arrived. The race was a lap too far,” Wust said. “Carlijn was better today.”
Immediately after the race, instead of packing up with yet another good but not outstanding race as she had done so often in her career, Achtereekte got a cuddle and was joking on the infield with her king, Willem-Alexander.
Achtereekte’s only other global medal was a 3,000 silver at the 2015 world championships. And with the tough competition within the Dutch team, she only qualified for one event in Pyeongchang.
Now that her magical opening day is over, Achtereekte said she was ready to hit her favorite McDonald’s restaurant and whoop it up with the seven girlfriends who came over from the Netherlands.