Some athletes don’t know when to quit.
That’s no problem for Ireen Wuest.
“I will leave on top,” Wuest said. “This is on top, isn’t it?”
At 35, she won the 1500m at the 2022 Winter Games in Olympic record time on Monday, defending her title.
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 Olympics, summer or winter, man or woman, breaking a tie with athletes such as Carl Lewis, Michael Phelps and Al Oerter.
Wuest, 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 — Wuest 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 Wuest, 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.”
Ayano Sato of Japan, ranked No. 1 in the world, was in the next pair. She couldn’t overtake Wuest. Then it was No. 2-ranked Brittany Bowe’s turn. The American wound up 10th.
“Just didn’t have the legs there at the end,” said Bowe, who opened up fast and will race again in the 500m and her specialty, the 1000m. “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 Wuest 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, Wuest had a feeling she would perform well.
“Expect is not quite a good word for it,” Wuest 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. Wuest, 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 19. She then won the 1500m in 2010, the 3000m again in 2014 and the 1500m in 2018.
Wuest also has also won seven world allround 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,” Wuest 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 37 in 2019.
Wuest 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 Wuest 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 Wuest. “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.