Some athletes don’t know when to quit.
That’s no problem for Ireen Wüst.
“I will leave on top,” Wüst said. “This is on top, isn’t it?”
At age 35, she won the 1500m at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Olympic record time on Monday, defending her title.
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Already the most decorated Olympic speed skater of all time, the Dutchwoman won her sixth gold medal and 12th medal overall. She is the first Olympian to win an individual gold medal in five Olympic Games, summer or winter, male or female, breaking a tie with athletes such as Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps and Al Oerter.
Wüst, the most successful Dutch speed skater in history, hadn’t quite wrapped her head around what it all meant. “Of course, it means a lot, but I don’t realize it yet. So ask me this question again in 10 days. It’s just an emotional mess in my head and it’s just one happy place.”
Skating four pairs from the end — meaning she wasn’t one of the favorites — Wüst clocked 1:53.28 to break the Olympic record of countrywoman Jorien ter Mors by .23 and move ahead of Antoinette de Jong of the Netherlands, who had set the pace at 1:54.82.
“An Olympic record on this track is amazing,” said Wüst, who came in ranked No. 7 in the world in the event. “The time is really fast, so I was really proud already of myself that I did my best 1500 on the biggest moment. And then it’s really nervous because you know a lot of good skaters are coming ahead. Yeah, it’s nerve-racking.”
“Just didn’t have the legs there at the end,” said Bowe, who opened up fast and will race again in the 500 and her specialty, the 1000. “The ladies that come from that 3K/1500 specialty definitely have the upper hand today.”
Finally, Miho Takagi was in the last pairing. She finished with a time of 1:53.72.
That gave Wüst the gold medal and her fifth straight medal in the event dating back to 2006. She already held the record at four straight.
“Today she has the perfect race at the best moment,” said de Jong, “and that’s really good.”
Going into the race, Wüst had a feeling she would perform well.
“Expect is not quite a good word for it,” Wüst said, “but I felt really good in training. I did amazing lap times in training so I knew I was good and I had to trust on it.”
Of course, she’s not done yet. Wüst, who also has five silver medals and a bronze, still has the 1000m and the women’s team pursuit.
That will give her a total of 15 individual Olympic races and five team pursuits.
At her first Olympic Games in 2006, she won her first race, the 3000m, to become the youngest Dutch champion in the sport at age 19. She then won the 1500 in 2010, the 3000 again in 2014 and the 1500 in 2018.
Wüst also has also won seven world all-round titles and 15 world distance championships gold medals plus 15 silvers and one bronze.
But the Olympics hold a special place in her heart.
“Just see the rings, it’s something magical and you dream about it as a kid and then it’s a blessing to even compete at the Olympics,” Wüst said, “and it’s something I want to show my really, really best. And I really enjoyed it.”
She teared up when talking to Dutch media after the race, talking about her friend and former teammate, Paulien van Deutekom, who died of lung cancer at age 37 in 2019.
Wüst said she thinks about her friend every day.
She dismissed any talk about her age. “It’s just about how I feel,” she said. “I’m not thinking, ‘I’m 35. I’m too old.’ No, no.”
And yet Wüst is ready to retire. She said her last race is March 12 at the World Cup Final.
“Words can’t describe her class,” Bowe said of Wüst. “She is the greatest of all time, as her performance shows. Another Olympic gold medal in Olympic record fashion. I’m honored to have competed against her for so many years and even more so to call her a friend.”
Karen Rosen, who has covered every summer and winter Olympics since 1992, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.