CALGARY — Ted-Jan Bloemen touched down in Inzell, Germany, last month as the newly minted world record holder in the 10,000 metres and the toast of Canada’s speedskating team.
At age 29, after a gruelling decade of skating in circles for a living, Bloemen had finally won his first individual World Cup medal at the season-opener in Calgary. A week later, he bulled his way into the conversation as one of the best distance racers on the planet with his record time of 12 minutes, 36.30 seconds in Salt Lake City.
But then misfortune struck on Dec. 5 when the errant skate of a teammate tore open his left shin right to the bone during training for the team pursuit.
“This kind of thing is very rare in long track,” Bloemen says. “Team pursuit has been around for 10 years, I think, and I’ve actually never seen this happen.”
At first, Bloemen didn’t even realize what happened. He watched fellow Canadian Stefan Waples tumble awkwardly in front of him and felt what he calls a tap on his shin. About 50 metres later, he looked down and gasped.
“I saw this huge cut and all this blood and thought, ‘Oh shit,’” Bloemen says.
Profanity, in this case, is understandable. The wound bled profusely, leaving a trail of red on the ice.
His fingers and face stained with blood, Bloemen grimaced as German emergency workers swarmed all around him. Photographers beamed the disturbing image via twitter all over the world.
“I guess people panicked a little bit,” Bloemen says. “It always comes out worse than it is.”
The injury came at a terrible time for a skater who moved to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean last year for one last chance at speedskating glory. Worn out from the stress of constantly battling for a spot on the World Cup team in the Netherlands, Bloemen briefly considered retiring.
The depth in Dutch speed skating is staggering, with the Netherlands winning 23 (!) long-track medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (in spite of posting solid times, Bloemen failed to even make the team).
On the outside looking in, Bloemen sent a last-ditch email to Canadian coach Bart Schouten. The two barely knew he each other, but Bloemen wrote that he was eligible to skate for Canada — thanks to his father being born in New Brunswick — and asked for a new start.
“I decided, ‘this is not working for me,’” Bloemen said of his situation in the Netherlands. “‘I’m not feeling better. I’m not achieving my goals. I need to find something different or just do a whole different area of work.’
“Bart’s response was so much fun for me. He was excited and thought I could bring a lot to the team and when I read his reply, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is going to be fun. I’m just going to go for it.’”
And go for it he did. The Canadian team told Bloemen he was welcome. He no longer needed to fear losing his spot from week to week. He just needed to focus on improving and forget all about the office politics back home.
“He knew that he wasn’t going to get kicked out,” Schouten says. ”He knew he could open up and admit his weaknesses without being punished for it. By opening up, he could actually work on his weaknesses and that made him stronger and better.
“He could be vulnerable here in Canada.”
That vulnerability led directly to the best results of his career.
“It was always my dream to become a professional speedskater and to skate world records and to be the best in the world one day,” Bloemen says. “Of course, I’m 29 years old now. I’ve been trying to do this for 10 years and it’s only now that I’m succeeding. That’s really special.”
To repair the damage from the errant skate, Bloemen needed five stitches on the inside to mend the fascia and 10 on the outside to close up the wound.
He is already skating — missing only two weeks of training — with an eye to returning to competition at the 2016 world single distance championships Feb. 11-14 in Kolomna, Russia.
Now, with the New Year upon us, Bloemen is battling to regain the form of his life.
No pressure, or anything.
“For me, it’s amazing to just keep improving and being on the team and cheering on your teammates and wanting them to do good and getting that back also,” he says “It’s a way better feeling than having to deal with a lot of difficulties, a lot of fellow countrymen who don’t want you to skate fast and you don’t want them to skate fast.
“It’s a weird atmosphere that I was used to, and it’s very refreshing to feel that joy in speedskating.”