Heather Bergsma has many proud moments from her 12-year career in long track speedskating. But one of her favorites is the day she set the world record in the 1,500-meter.
It was at an ISU World Cup in Utah on Nov. 21, 2015, and the now three-time Olympian was skating in the final heat with teammate Brittany Bowe, who had broken the 1,500 world record the previous weekend—a record that had last stood for a decade. The friendly rivalry helped push Bergsma to lower Bowe’s record by 0.74 seconds to 1:50.85.
A week earlier, Bergsma—a versatile speedskater in an era of specialization—had set a world record in the 1,000. But the 1,500 is “the queen’s race” in speedskating, she said, and Bergsma is proud to have held the record in this marquee event for more than three years. (Miho Takagi from Japan lowered it to 1:49.84 in March 2019, also at the Utah Olympic Oval.)
Bergsma’s husband, Jorrit Bergsma, was in Utah competing at the 2020 ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships for the Netherlands last weekend—where he won his fifth world title and first in mass start on Sunday afternoon—while Bergsma (née Richardson) was at home outside Amsterdam, where she has segued into her next career: stay-at-home mom to son Brent, now 16 months old.
“Besides competing in the Olympics, it was my biggest dream to become a mom,” she said by phone from the Netherlands. “I’m really happy with that.”
One of America’s top speedskaters for three Olympic cycles, Bergsma stepped back from speedskating in May 2018 — after she won a bronze medal in the women’s team pursuit at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. It was her third Games and first Olympic medal, the culmination of a long, storied career in the sport. She and Jorrit wanted to start a family, and son Brent was born in October 2018. At that point, she did not know if speedskating would fit into her life again.
“I took two years to see how I felt,” she said. “I just decided I really enjoy being a stay-at-home mom and spending all my time with Brent.”
Now age 30, Bergsma has revealed to TeamUSA.org that she decided her career in competitive speedskating is complete. From 2011 to 2018, she won almost everything there was to win in speedskating: three single distance world championship titles in the 500, 1,000, and 1,500, a world sprint title, and 10 other world championship medals. She has more world championship medals than any other U.S. women’s speedskater in history.
She also won three overall world cup titles, more than 80 world cup medals—many of them gold—and set those two world records, plus the 2x500-meter world record and sprint combination world record.
“It just goes to show her ability,” said long track national team head coach Ryan Shimabukuro. “When I trained her, we focused more from 500 to 1,500 and team pursuit. But when she got married and moved to Holland, that shifted more to 1,000 up to mass start. It just shows she’s a fighter, she’s a racer. She loves to compete. You put something in front of her, she never shies away from the challenge.”
She is the only woman in the world to win world titles at 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters; and she also won the world sprint title. Increasing her versatility, one of her world championship medals also came in the mass start.
The only trophy that eluded Bergsma was an Olympic medal in an individual event. Winning the team pursuit bronze in PyeongChang, along with teammates Bowe, Mia Manganello and Carlijn Schoutens, is another one of her proudest moments. It was the first Olympic medal for U.S. women’s long track speedskating since in 16 years.
“That was an awesome job,” commented Jorrit. “She had a big part in that race. I really enjoyed those races and am really proud of those achievements.”
“I’m just really proud to have represented the U.S. in three different Olympic Games and to have set a world record in the 1,500 meters, 1,000-meter and of course the Olympic bronze medal in the team pursuit in PyeongChang,” added Bergsma.
Heather Bergsma competes in the women's 1,5000-meter at the ISU World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships on Feb. 12, 2017 in Gangneung, South Korea.
In setting the world records, Bergsma and Bowe pushed each other on the ice. In back-to-back world cups in November 2015, Bergsma and Bowe traded world records in the 1,000 and 1,500—each setting a record at the Calgary World Cup, then breaking each other’s world records a week later at the Salt Lake City World Cup.
“It’s pretty easy to tell that we bring out the best in each other,” Bowe told TeamUSA.org at the time. “We’re fighters and we’re competitors, and when we’re racing together something special happens almost every single time.”
They pushed each other right through the 2018 Olympic Games. After winning bronze in the team pursuit, Bergsma raced one more Olympic event, the women’s mass start. Bowe has continued competing, while Bergsma decided to step back, then officially retire this week.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Bergsma said. “I’m completely satisfied with how everything went.”
“She was a fighter,” added Shimabukuro. “She’s one of those warriors. She’s very introverted and quiet, but she loves to win, she hates losing, and she works hard. … To see her become world champion and win an Olympic medal, it was a great way to see her develop through the years. I’m very proud of her and what she’s achieved.”
Bergsma may stay in speedskating as a coach, but for little kids. She helped a kids’ inline skate team during the summer of 2018 (Bergma’s skating career began in inline skating when she was growing up in North Carolina).
“It’s nice to help little kids and see the sport grow,” she said. “But I only did it for a couple of months. I don’t know if I have what it takes to coach on a higher level than just kids having fun.”
A prior dream of dental school is no longer in her future either. For the moment, she is content chasing around Brent, who could become a speedskater like his Olympic and world-championship-winning parents (Jorrit has won three Olympic and 11 world championship medals).
Or maybe Brent will be a cyclist. His aunt gave him a toddler bicycle for Christmas.
“That’s his favorite toy right now,” said his proud mom. “In the morning, he’s on his bike. Before bed, he’s on his bike, and all day. It’s really cute.”
Asked what she hopes her legacy will be within speedskating, Bergsma has not yet thought that far. She is not one to flaunt her laurels and seems happiest talking about Brent.
“Really, I’m just thankful for all the support that I’ve had during my skating career from US Speedskating and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and everyone that made that possible,” she said. “And my family of course.”
A proud husband, Jorrit is happy to talk about his wife’s accomplishments.
“She can look back on a fantastic, awesome career,” he said. “She’s the only woman who became world champion in the 500-meter, 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter, and at world sprints. She did some awesome races, awesome world records. I’m really proud of her career. And her bronze medal, of course, at the Olympics, so she can be really proud of her career—and I am.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.