Heather Bergsma’s first speedskating coach in 2007 called her “Bambi on Ice.” With her straight legs and posture, Bergsma looked like an accident waiting to happen.
Now she could be dubbed “The Next Bonnie Blair,” an Olympic superstar waiting to happen.
Bergsma is on track to win more medals – as many as four – than any other member of Team USA in any sport at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. She also is favored to win two golds at the same Winter Games – which no American has achieved since Blair more than 20 years ago.
“I’m a fan,” said Blair, who won five gold medals and one bronze in three Olympic Games from 1988 to 1994, “and I think she’s doing some incredible skating. She’s got great strength and she’s got that killer instinct. You can for sure see that in her eyes.”
On Sunday, Bergsma capped a phenomenal season by taking the overall long track speedskating world cup title. By winning the 1,500 at the final world cup in Stavanger, Norway, by more than half a second, she pulled up from third place in the standings and added the 1,500 season crown to the 1,000-meter title she wrapped up Saturday.
Bergsma called her three world cup titles the culmination of “a really successful year and perfect leading up to the Olympic season.”
In February, she won gold in the 1,000 and 1,500 at the world single distances championships in PyeongChang, South Korea, to become the first skater (male or female) to win world titles in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 (her 500 win came in 2015). In the 1,500, she went head-to-head against Ireen Wust of the Netherlands, who medaled in the event in the last three Olympic Games, and held her off on the final lap.
Bergsma’s silver at the world sprint championships made her the fourth woman and second U.S. woman to medal at five straight world sprint championships.
“She kind of makes it look easy,” said Matt Kooreman, the U.S. long track national sprint team head coach, “but you know there’s a lot more going into the training and the preparation to be able to maintain that level. That’s just a tribute to her dedication, her day-in and day-out preparation.”
Bergsma, a native of High Point, North Carolina, who will turn 28 in one week, was undefeated in her six 1,000-meter world cup races this season. Kooreman considers the 1,000 the “perfect combination of power and endurance for her.”
She also won four world cup medals in the 1,500 and two in the 500, and is a threat in the mass start, a new event for PyeongChang in which Bergsma took bronze at the world single distance championships on the Olympic oval.
“I’m much more confident after this year, but you never know what’s going to happen the next race, so I still have to keep working hard towards what I want,” said Bergsma.
What she wants is to become the first female medalist for Team USA in long track speedskating since Chris Witty and Jennifer Rodriguez at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games.
Bergsma has already competed in two Games. Her highest finishes were sixth in the 500 in Vancouver in 2010 and seventh in the 1,000 in Sochi in 2014, when Team USA was shut out of the medals with disappointing performances across the board.
Since then, Bergsma’s consistency has compared favorably to Blair’s when she was dominating the world cup circuit.
“That’s what she’s got riding for her,” Blair said, “and that says a lot for the whole psyche. That freaks everybody else out, so it’s a great thing.
“Her competitors are like, ‘Oh, God, here she comes again. Here she comes.’”
Bergsma, who holds the world record in the 1,500, has stiff competition from within her own team in the form of another skater with the initials BB: Brittany Bowe. She broke Bergsma’s eight-day-old world record in the 1,000 in November 2015, but suffered a concussion last July and struggled to recover. She was forced to end her season early.
“Brittany has been hurt this year, but if I was to pick the top two, it would be between them,” Kooreman said.
They are friends as well as rivals, and shared a home in Park City, Utah, with two other skaters prior to the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Now Bergsma shares a home with only one other skater: Her husband, Jorrit Bergsma, who won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter and the bronze in the 5,000 for the Netherlands. It was a match made on Twitter.
Bergsma, whose maiden name is Richardson, was too shy to talk to Jorrit when she saw him at a world cup in Russia. After he won a race, she congratulated him in a tweet. They started hanging out on the circuit and were married in May 2015.The Bergsmas live in Aldeboarn, a Dutch village in speedskating hotbed Heerenveen with a population of about 1,500.
The Netherlands dominated the Sochi Games with 23 medals – an astounding 20 more than any other country – and won eight of the 12 gold medals.
Although moving to Holland was more a case of true love than “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Bergsma has reaped the benefits of training with a Dutch team.
Because the workouts are more for endurance than sprinting, Bergsma stamina has increased, which helps her, Kooreman said, “finish off races where she used to fade.”
And Jorrit helps keep her spirits from flagging.
“He tries to get me to be a little bit more confident because I am quiet and to myself,” Bergsma said. “We train together all the time, so he sees all the hard work that I put in and doesn’t let me talk myself down. Sometimes I used to question what I was doing and going into races, but now I just have a stronger mentality.”
Bergsma said her husband encouraged her when she was disappointed at her 500-meter time in PyeongChang and feared that her speed wasn’t good enough for the upcoming 1,000.
“He was saying, ‘You know you can do better. It wasn’t a perfect race. If you skate what you can, then it’ll happen.’ Then my mind is clear again and I’m able to do what I want to do.”
They also tease each other. “At some world cups, I have to race every single day and multiple events and he’s like, ‘But I’m still skating further than you,’” Bergsma said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I still have to give 100 percent every time because I’m a sprinter and you kind of relax.’
“Or sometimes, he’ll remind me, ‘I got a gold medal yesterday and you didn’t get anything, so I’m up one,’ and then I have to go race after that so I can say that we’re tied.’”
Call it a draw. However, as one of the first couples of speedskating in Holland, where it is the national sport, the Bergsmas raced each other in a 1,000 on a Dutch television show called “Battle of the Sexes.”
“I really had high hopes of winning, but Jorrit won, so that trophy is in the living room” Bergsma said. “He won by a lot – he might have beaten me by 2 seconds in the 1,000. That was not my weekend.”
This season, nearly every weekend has been her weekend.
Although Bergsma trains with skaters who wear orange, she is all red, white and blue at world cups and other events. Kooreman coaches her on the ice and she’s able to talk to her U.S. teammates in person instead of keeping up with them by text.
“We were such a close team; we always just had fun together,” said Bergsma, who gets back to the U.S. rarely, but will go home to High Point for a visit on March 17. “That was hard for me at first over here.”
She also is learning Dutch, which is not an easy language. Bergsma knows enough to understand what people are saying and speak a little. “When you’re really trying to learn another language, then I feel like you’re constantly tired,” Bergsma said, “because your brain can only focus for so long, and then you still have to train. Moving here, I had to get my driver’s license again. The test was in English, thank goodness.
“I feel like I’m very boring now. I just train all the time.”
That means riding her bike every day, mostly outside, which was new to Bergsma.
After practice, from 4 to 6 p.m., she and her husband cook together every night, but leading up to the final world cup they went out for Chinese food and pizza.
With the season almost over, Bergsma said, “We were getting a little lazy.”
They also find time to play with their dog Yuki, a Japanese Spitz whose name means “Snow,” and for a couple of weeks a year get a chance to borrow Jorrit’s father’s speedboat.
Although Bergsma is the only American training full-time with her team, K.C. Boutiette, who is hoping to make his fifth Olympic team at age 47, has come over to train with the group.
Boutiette was the pioneer who paved the way for inline skaters to switch to speedskating. Bergsma decided to try her luck in 2007, joining a program with Olympic champion Derek Parra, who gave her the “Bambi on Ice” nickname.
“I think he’s proud of how far I’ve come,” said Bergsma, who saw him in Salt Lake City this season before heading to Calgary for the world sprints.
She also talks to Blair whenever the U.S. team trains or competes in Milwaukee, where Blair lives with her husband David Cruikshank, who was also a U.S. Olympic speedskater.
“She always is encouraging me and Brittany,” Bergsma said.
“I’m really excited for Heather – it’s been a lot of fun to watch – and I am bummed for Brittany and what she’s gone through this season,” Blair said. “I think that that competition between the two of them is good for them. They really drove each other to be better, and you’ve got to like to have that friendly rivalry to keep pushing the limits. It’s too bad they can’t be a bit more together, but what Heather’s doing is working, so keep at it.”
Blair, a four-time Olympian, won her first gold medal in the 500 in 1988 before Bergsma was born, then added two more in the 500 and two gold medals in the 1,000.
Kooreman was a junior skater on the national scene during Blair’s later years and said “that kind of calm, fierce attitude towards competition is similar” to Bergsma.
“Heather is not overly boisterous,” he said. “Win or lose, she has this same look about her, but when you actually watch her race and when you see her chase somebody down, you know there’s a lot of emotion and drive in there – and that determination is similar to Bonnie.
“She was just a machine out there when she was executing her races, and Heather is that same way.”
So, can Bergsma really be the next Bonnie Blair?
“I think she could be the next Heather Bergsma.”