The crescendo of 18-year-old American Jordan Stolz‘s historic weekend came not as he glided powerfully on the most famous ice in speed skating, but as he sat.
Stolz, already labeled “wonderkind” but “straaljager” (jet fighter) by Dutch reporters (the sport’s media of record), finished his last and longest race, Sunday’s 1500m, in the lead with one pair to go.
It wasn’t his most impressive time of his three days of racing at Thialf, the Madison Square Garden of speed skating in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
On Friday and Saturday, he won the 500m and 1000m, skating the second-fastest sea-level time in history in each race to become, twice over, the youngest gold medalist in world single distance championships history (since 1996). (The fastest times in speed skating are set at high altitude, in Calgary and Salt Lake City.)
Stolz wanted to finish the championships as the first man to win three individual gold medals in one edition.
To grasp the gravity of that feat, consider the last two times it happened at the Olympics: Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian who won the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m, all in world record times, at the Viking Ship at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, and Eric Heiden, Stolz’s fellow Wisconsinite who swept all five golds in Lake Placid in 1980.
German women Anni Friesinger (2003) and Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann (1997) also won three events at a single worlds. Plus, skaters have won three or more distances at the world allround championships, which crown one champion combining results from sprint and distance races and date officially to 1893.
Winning three of the five traditional distances is so difficult because most skaters are separated into three categories, each encompassing two distances: sprints (500m and 1000m), middle distance (1000m and 1500m) and distance (3000m/5000m for women and 5000m/10,000m for men). Rarely does a sprinter win the 1500m. Rarely does a middle distance skater win the 500m or the 3000m/5000m. Rarely does a distance skater win the 1500m.
Stolz, a modest interview, was reflective on Saturday night when looking ahead to the closing 1500m after winning the two sprints.
“Does it still surprise you, how good you are?” a reporter from Dutch broadcaster NOS asked him in the infield.
“Yeah, I think it does, because I don’t expect to be skating that much faster than the best skaters in the world, but somehow I am,” Stolz said.
“You’ll win [the 1500m], I think. What do you think?” the reporter said.
“I think I have a good chance,” Stolz replied. “Between me and Kjeld, I think it’s a pretty similar chance. So I’m not going to pick one.”
After skating into the lead on Sunday, Stolz took a seat within feet of the inside lane to watch the last pair. It included Dutchman Kjeld Nuis, who won the 1500m at the last two Olympics, holds the world record and, following the retirement of Sven Kramer, is the pre-eminent man in the Netherlands’ national sport.
Nuis trailed Stolz’s time after the first lap, unsurprising given Stolz was crowned the world’s best sprinter over the previous two days.
But Thialf grew louder. Nuis moved five hundredths ahead after two laps and 23 hundredths ahead with one lap left, about the time that an American coach (appeared to be Stolz’s personal coach Bob Corby) crouched down, put his arm around Stolz, patted his shoulder and said a few words into his pupil’s right ear.
A grimacing Nuis skated right past the seated Stolz on the back straightaway. He came around the final curve, dropped a hand to his knee and stabbed his right skate out across the finish line to stop the clock.
Thialf hushed. Nuis’ final time was 23 hundredths slower than Stolz. The dethroned Dutchman slammed a fist against his leg and kicked a track marker in frustration.
Stolz hugged American coaches after winning the 1500m, the middle distance that is labeled the “King’s Race” as it can be a gathering place for the world’s best sprinters and world’s best distance skaters.
“I guess I wrote some history,” Stolz said later, according to the International Skating Union. “I was worried [I might not win]. But yeah, I just had confidence in the last lap and I just had a little bit on him.”
Through the weekend, comparisons between Stolz and Heiden continued. Stolz, who also swept the 500m, 1000m and 1500m at last month’s world junior championships, joined Heiden and Heiden’s younger sister, Beth, as the only skaters to win junior and senior world titles in the same year.
Heiden was also 18 when he won the first of his three titles in the world allround championships.
Last year, Stolz became the third-youngest man to make a U.S. Olympic speed skating team, doing so at age 17, just like Heiden did in 1976.
“I can remember when LeBron James walked onto the court and I saw him in his rookie year,” Heiden said before the world championships, according to The New York Times. “There was just sort of this aura around him that I see around Jordan.”
Stolz finished 13th and 14th in his first Olympics. Heiden was seventh and 19th at his first Olympics as a 17-year-old, too. Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen also made their first Olympic teams as teens and left without a medal.
Then Stolz opened this season in November by becoming the youngest man to win a World Cup race. He became the talk of the sport, though he traded wins with missing the podium altogether on the World Cup.
Could he deliver on the biggest stage at the world championships at Thialf? Or was he still growing through inconsistency?
Stolz, who honed his skating on the frozen pond behind the family house, answered emphatically the last three days. It was a shot in the arm for U.S. men’s speed skating, which last won an individual Olympic medal in 2010, though has had world champions since then.
Shani Davis, the 2006 and 2010 Olympic 1000m champion who has coached Stolz, texted him, “Great job,” according to NOS.
“It’s like trying to beat Michael Jordan or something, I assume,” Laurent Dubreuil, the Canadian who was runner-up to Stolz in the 500m, said, according to the International Skating Union. “He’s doing things that we would have deemed impossible.”
Stolz is also effecting the Dutch, who have three years to figure out how to be faster than the straaljager at the next Winter Games.
“If [Thomas] Krol and me would have finished one-two again, it would be like business as usual and easy-going into the summer,” said Nuis, mentioning a teammate who took silver at the Olympics. “But now there’s someone who gives us a real challenge.”
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