Stolz’s dominance was hardly a sure thing when the week began. He had won World Cup races and the junior world championship, but he was also inconsistent, which is not uncommon for young skaters. There was no guarantee these world championships would be his coming-out party, or that there would be a coming-out party at all.
The change in his standing can be measured by how Dutch fans reacted to him as the weekend wore on.
The Dutch are the most skating-mad people on earth; the country’s rich art tradition includes paintings of ice skaters from almost 500 years ago. Thialf is a grand monument to that love and tradition, an immaculately gleaming oval packed with 12,500 orange-clad fans. The rowdiest reside on the curves, in standing-only sections named for Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst, considered the king and queen of Dutch skating.
National flags indicate small pockets of support for skaters from other countries — Stolz’s parents, Dirk and Jane, sat with the families of other American skaters behind the stars and stripes hanging on the stands — but the sport is largely a Dutch affair.
When Dutch competitors glide onto the ice for warm-ups, they are cheered so lustily that sometimes they have to shush the crowd because other skaters are about to compete. As they race around the oval, yelling follows, a sort of auditory arena wave. The loudest cheering is reserved for when their first place times flash onto the video screens, as it did many times in races that did not feature Stolz.
But even in the Netherlands, there are signs of speedskating’s lack of standing in world sport. Thialf is not in Amsterdam or Rotterdam, but Heerenveen, a town of about 30,000 in the pastoral northern province of Friesland, which can feel set apart from the rest of the country. It is the equivalent of TrackTown USA in Eugene, Ore.
Thialf is surrounded by houses, some with horses in the yard. Outside of the venue was a single vendor selling vibrant orange Holland scarves and blue-and-red Friesland hats. A food truck sold krokets, the Dutch version of French croquettes, and frikandel, a deep-fried sausage, for about $4.
Which is to say that Dutch speedskating fans are not simply partisans, but fans of the sport itself. Past world champions, or just those who have performed well at Thialf, are deeply appreciated. Friday’s polite cheers for Stolz transformed into Saturday’s recognition of a champion, and finally into Sunday’s appreciation for having witnessed one of the greatest tournaments in speedskating history.