SOCHI, Russia — Ireen Wust leaves the Sochi Games with the most medals of any Olympic athlete, an astonishing haul for a skater who was down and almost out four years ago.
Wracked by overtraining, insecurity and signs of burnout, Wust seemed destined to fade away with a tag of unfulfilled potential as she headed into the 2010 Vancouver Games.
But there a gold she no longer expected in the 1,500 meters turned her career around. Physically and mentally, it was the spark that ignited her into a five-medal phenomenon at the Adler Arena.
She capped her brilliant performance by leading the Dutch team to pursuit gold on Saturday, after she already won the 3,000 and added silver in the 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000.
“I would have called you crazy if you had predicted this four years ago,” she said after her last race. “Physically, mentally and at a personal level, I have made huge strides over the past four years. Maybe this it is what makes me the most proud.”
Now she is the queen of the all-conquering Dutch team, which left Sochi with 23 speedskating medals, eight of them gold. In a nation where the sport is almost a religion when the country’s canals freeze over, she is now its greatest winter sports Olympian of all time.
And in an age in which speedskaters increasingly are concentrating on either sprint or long distance races, Wust does just about everything.
She left the 500 to the sprinters, but medaled in every other race.
“It is very special to win silver in 1,000 and in a 5,000,” she said.
And even when she was beaten into silver three times, she had no regrets: “Each time it was by a better woman.”
The one time she looked really disappointed was when she finished second in the 1,500 to compatriot Jorien ter Mors, failing to defend the Vancouver title that meant so much to her.
Wust was just 19 when her Olympic story began. She hit Turin in 2006 carrying lots of secret hope and no public pressure whatsoever. She stunned everyone by winning the 3,000 and adding bronze in the 1,500.
The future was hers and the country was counting on a new star. With her seemingly insatiable appetite for training, she didn’t plan to let anyone down.
But the tough training took its toll. Wust lost weight and her medal count took a dip too. Not accustomed to losing, she turned morose and inward, a sulky athlete unable to find her groove.
“It hit me mentally too, when the body doesn’t listen to your mind. Those years were tough on me,” she said.
From childhood, she had been driven by a will to win and she was not about to give up. Recovery came, suddenly, with her 1,500 gold in Vancouver.
“People with burnout, also suffer mentally. That is why my 1,500 of Vancouver was such a release,” she said. “It gave me the confidence to say, ‘Hey, I can still do this.’”
That race showed her career had bottomed out and was on the way back up.
“Physically I was 70 percent of what I am now,” she said.
After a standout season going into the games, fans were hoping Wust would carry her form into Sochi. But few were expecting this.
Going home with five medals will give her enough satisfaction, not to dive straight back into punishing workouts.
“I promise! I won’t focus on the next championships as of tomorrow,” she said. “I am at peace with myself now.”