Beating Depression and Winning Gold

Stefan Groothuis headed to his first Olympic games in Torino in 2006 as the Dutch speed skating national champion. But an eighth place finish in the 1000 metres wasn’t what he had hoped for. On the Best in the World with Richard Parr podcast Stefan told me that it took him years to recover from that experience. “Maybe I was over focused,” he said.

“I skated a really good opener, my best opener ever. I skated the fastest first lap of the whole field of the competition. But then I made a really big mistake at the second to last corner. I flew out and lost a lot of time and I came eighth. To be honest several weeks after this race I was literally sick because of this competition. I had to throw up almost every time I had to think back at this race.”

A year later Stefan sliced his Achilles tendon with his skate. In 2010 he was sick leading up to the Vancouver Olympics. Again there was no medal for Groothuis at those games as he finished fourth. Five years of injures, illnesses and defeats all took their toll on the speed skater.

“I was really good, I was winning World Cups and for a lot of the time I was the best in the Netherlands. But at the really important games, the World Championships and the Olympic games of Vancouver, most of the time I came fourth which was a pretty big disappointment of course. The one thing I did all of those times from 2006-2011 was ‘well I messed it up, I have to work even harder and I have to be tougher on myself,’ which I did. But mentally it was pretty hard and I had a mental breakdown in 2011. That was of course a really tough time – to lift these mental problems.”

While suffering with depression, Stefan’s wife Ester was pregnant with their first child. His coach Jac Orie constantly helped him during this time.

“My coach, he was really supportive, he was not talking to me a lot about what I was going through with this depression, but what he did was he gave me the space and the trust that I could come back and everything would be fine in the end. And that was really important because physically I was terrible that summer. We did some time trials, for example and I was crushed by the women in our team which is not a good sign for getting into the winter.”

Getting back on the ice would ultimately assist Stefan’s recovery. “One of the things that did help me was sports itself,” he said.

“A known thing about depression is getting off your chair and doing things is an important factor to recover, so I did that.”

When he returned to competing Stefan changed his attitude.

“It made me think: ‘why am I doing all of this? For who am I doing all of this?’ The one thing I did was take sports a little less seriously than what I did before. Maybe I took it a little too seriously all of those years before that.”

It began to pay off. In 2012 he took gold at the World Single Distance Championships in Heerenveen and also won at the World Sprint Championships in Calgary. This helped his third Olympic experience in Sochi.

“Everything was coming more naturally and of ease. And that made a really big difference in the way that I went through the Olympic games of 2014 in comparison to Vancouver 2010 and Torino 2006. In 2006 and 2010 there was only one option for me and that was I have to win gold. And in Sochi, I thought I’m really good, I won the national championships to qualify, I can be the best in the World, I can be Olympic champion. But the reality is there are 40 other guys trying and there are a lot of guys who are really good.”

At the age of 32, Stefan Groothuis became one of the oldest speed skating Olympic champions. With a time of 1 minute, 8.39 seconds he claimed gold in the 1000 metres, ahead of Denny Morrison of Canada and Dutch compatriot Michel Mulder. Two-time reigning champion Shani Davis was eighth.

Enjoying the Olympic experience appeared to have helped his success.

“When I went to Torino there were always some festivities around the Dutch team and I was always thinking ‘oh well I have sore legs,’ and I only wanted to be busy with my speed skating. In Vancouver it was the same. In Sochi there were some festivities, for example the Dutch King was there, and the big opening ceremony. I was really enjoying it for the first time. I thought: ‘this is the games. This is something really special. And now I’m here I’m just going to enjoy all of these festivities as well and not see them as something that is standing in my way of getting my best performance.’”

A good workman never blames his tools is a saying that doesn’t necessarily apply to speed skating. According to 2014 Olympic Champion Stefan Groothuis his skates would need a lot of work to provide the optimum performance.

“There’s a rocker underneath your skate,” Stefan began to explain on the Best in the World with Richard Parr. “The skate is not totally flat. There’s a rocker in there and that has to be really perfect and we have special equipment, measuring equipment, and the English word for it is a jig and you put it in your skate and you can work on your skate with stones to make a perfect rocker in there. I can tell you there is a lot of work to make it perfect! There’s also a band in your skate. You can imagine skating is always going anti-clockwise. There’s a little bit of a bend in the blade so the skate already turns from itself with the corner.”

“There’s a lot of fine-tuning in there in how much do you want it to go with you because if it’s going too fast or it’s going too quick in the corner that won’t work.”

“Then you have the stance of the blade underneath your shoe and there are five directions that you can put it.”

It’s not just adjusting the footwear that speed skaters have tried to innovate to help create an advantage. Leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics the Norwegian team changed the colour of their suits from red to blue.

There hasn’t been conclusive proof that blue suits will create faster times so any advantage could be psychological.

Speaking before the games in PyeongChang, Stefan feels that when the USA team changed their suits before the last Olympics it had a detrimental effect.

“It can also work in the wrong direction. I think that’s what happened to the Americans in the Sochi 2014 games for example. The Americans were really good for the pre-season for the Sochi games. Especially the women who were winning everything. And then they came up with a really special suit two weeks before the Olympics actually started. So they only had two weeks to get used to the suits themselves. Then one or two guys had a bad race in the suit and the whole team went mentally down, it seemed like from the outside, because they were all getting into a panic: ‘This suit is not good, this suit is really bad.’”

The Norwegians and the Americans aren’t the only ones to experiment. Dutch skater Stefan recalls an innovation attempt he tested.

“I really didn’t like this experiment. There was a time when they tried to put oil in the tube of your skate. And the oil was going through the blade and put on the ice at the front of the blade so you were constantly gliding over a thin film of oil but I was not really happy with that because I already felt the International Skating Union would forbid this after a while and that happened.”

Stefan Groothuis was speaking on the Best in the World with Richard Parr podcast.