“That kiss was for Lara,” Yara van Kerkhof said.
Sunday night, the Netherlands’ 3,000-meter relay team broke its own Olympic record and passed another milestone in their reckoning with profound sorrow. Four years ago in PyeongChang, Lara van Ruijven helped the Netherlands win a bronze medal in the event. Midway between those Olympics and the Beijing Games, van Ruijven died at age 27, in the prime of her career.
The Netherlands’ foursome — van Kerkhof, Selma Poutsma, Xandra Velzeboer and superstar Suzanne Schulting — skated for van Ruijven. Schulting and van Kerkhof skated with van Ruijven on the 2018 bronze medal team. Somewhere deep within them, they knew they had skated with her again Sunday night.
“Of course, we miss her every day,” van Kerkhof said. “She gives us strength. It’s also thanks to her we are here. We are really thankful for that. She is on our mind and in our hearts every day. It’s why we did — to maybe show her. We feel her presence.”
Van Ruijven grew up in Naaldwijk and skated for the first time at age 6. She competed with uncommon ferocity. She became one of the Netherlands’ best athletes — and studied law at a university on the side. In 2019, in the 500 meters, van Ruijven became the first Dutch woman to claim a short track world championship. Teammates nicknamed her “Panter,” and she adorned her helmet with a panther-skin pattern.
In July 2020, at a training camp in the French Pyrenees, van Ruijven suddenly fell ill. Doctors at a hospital in Perpignan, France diagnosed her with an autoimmune disease. Dutch Coach Jeroen Otter visited her, and van Ruijven seemed upbeat, happy to have someone with whom she could speak Dutch. Her condition rapidly deteriorated the next day, and doctors placed her in a medically induced coma. She had been at the peak of athletic might, one of the best speed skaters in the world. Days later, at age 27, she died.
“You can’t describe what you feel, as a team, and as a coach,” Otter said earlier during the Games. “For me, Lara was a very special person. With my age, they could be my daughters.”
Van Ruijven’s death shattered the Netherlands’ short-track speedskating program, which had emerged as perhaps the best in the world. They leaned on one another to move on. They spent their days together, on the ice and off. They shared tips at practice and feelings afterward. They formed inseparable bonds.
“We are just a really good team,” van Kerkhof said at a news conference. “We are really close to each other. We are happy if someone else if winning, and we are there if someone else is failing or falling. We are just really close as a team, and we can get the best out of each other.”
“Yeah, I think we can also talk very well with each other and evaluate our training, but also how we feel,” added Velzeboer, sitting next to van Kerkhof. “We’re very close and always together. That’s the most important part.”
On the ice, the Netherlands grew only stronger. Schulting, 23, emerged as a superstar. In October, the Netherlands’ relay team set the world record at 4:02.809 seconds. They came to Beijing with only one goal.
At the start, Poutsma dug her blade into the start line, she burst ahead of the other three teams, zoomed around the rink and pushed Schulting to maintain the lead. Schulting already had bagged one gold and one silver medal in Beijing. Now, she surged forward and extended the Netherlands’ lead.
The Dutch were threatened only briefly, when China passed them with 10 laps to go. Velzeboer, at 20 the team’s youngest skater, snatched it back immediately. Schulting came next, and she widened the gap to an insurmountable margin.
The Netherlands also trusted Schulting to skate the final lap. Schulting raised and flexed her arms and screamed as she crossed the line, floating alone. Her teammates joined her, and they all screamed with joy in one another’s faces. They embraced in a circle at center ice, throwing arms around shoulder. They glided toward coaches, leaping on top of the padded barrier to hug them.
The foursome glided down the ice with the flag of the Netherlands draped across their backs, stopped at the end and took a bow. They had earned the gold medal they came to Beijing to win. It was easy to see their smiles. You had to look close, but on one sleeve of each of their uniforms, you could also see a tiny patch in the shape of a heart, filled in with panther-skin pattern.