GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Dutch speedskater Carlijn Achtereekte wasn’t supposed to be here, holding this Dutch flag as the gold medalist in the women’s 3,000-meter race. In the vaunted hierarchy of Dutch skaters in that event, Achtereekte entered the evening as a distant third. She had never been in an Olympics before. She had never even won a World Cup race.
Even after she skated a fast race — 3 minutes 59 seconds and, importantly, 21 hundredths of a second — no one thought she would end up here. When she posted that time with more than a dozen skaters to go, it seemed certain one, if not both, of her more heralded teammates would surpass it.
“I hoped I would win it,” Achtereekte said. “I was dreaming about it. But I didn’t expect it, no.”
Most people figured four-time Olympian and two-time 3,000-meter gold medalist Ireen Wust would make a push for gold. She did, besting Achtereekte’s pace by more than a second entering her final lap — before falling eight hundredths of a second short. For an experienced skater such as Wust, the sudden slowdown was surprising.
“I think I had a really strong beginning of the race. I raced for the gold, not for silver or bronze,” Wust said after winning her fourth Olympic silver medal and ninth Olympic medal overall. “Carlijn, she was the best today. So I have to be satisfied with the silver, but of course it hurts a little bit because I have enough silver at home.”
The apparent heir to Wust’s longtime throne, 22-year-old Antoinette de Jong, entered with high expectations as well, but she settled for bronze.
“Carlijn skated a really good race. I saw the time. I thought, ‘Okay, I can do that also,’ ” de Jong said. “ ‘. . . I can skate 3:59.’ But I skated” 4:00.02.
That a Dutch speedskater won a gold medal in the women’s 3,000 meters was no surprise. That Dutch skaters swept the podium was noteworthy only because they had never done it before in the event. The Netherlands won 23 of 36 speedskating medals in Sochi, enticing the International Olympic Committee to lower the number of entrants any one country can have here. In the first long-track speedskating event of the PyeongChang Olympics, the rule change did not achieve its desired effect.
But that it was the 28-year-old Achtereekte who outlasted not only her teammates but a field that contained other legitimate medal contenders constituted a massive upset. All week, Wust and de Jong fielded interviews. Achtereekte, not expected to contend here, had no such responsibilities.
“It was really easy for me the first few days here because I didn’t have too many interviews,” Achtereekte said. “. . . Now I get interviews.”
Achtereekte hails from a small village in the Netherlands called Lettele, population 605, according to the Netherlands’s central bureau of statistics. Sixteen people followed her to Korea, including a group of longtime friends who have been coming to her events since she was young and bought their tickets to PyeongChang in June before she even qualified. She told her roommate in the Olympic Village that she was looking forward to skating well in her race Saturday night so she could reward herself with a McFlurry — probably Oreo or M&M. On the scale of here-to-win-the-gold and happy-to-be-here, Achtereekte was nearer the latter.
When she first posted her time, Achtereekte thought it might be good enough to medal, and that would have been good enough. The group of skaters still to come included the most recent World Cup champion and three skaters who had won at least one gold medal in this event. The time seemed unlikely to stand.
“It was not really nice to wait so long,” Achtereekte said. “. . . I don’t know [if the time would be good enough for] gold or silver or bronze, and I hoped it was good enough for podium. But it was hard to wait.”
But skater after skater came up short. Wust was ahead until the final half-lap, then started to slow. Achtereekte watched the board, watched Wust slowly build a cushion, then lose it at the end.
A silver medal would have changed Achereekte’s life plenty. But because of eight hundredths of a second in her Olympic debut, she now owns the gold medal her teammates wanted. Thanks to 3 minutes 59.21 seconds Saturday night, she is now just as decorated as many of her more talked-about Dutch teammates — and free to enjoy herself here for weeks to come.
“Now I’m free to go,” she said. “Now I can make party with my best friends here, and that’s amazing.”