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Yvonne van Gennip The Duchess of Speed Skating

Yvonne van Gennip  The Duchess of Speed Skating

Contrary to popular belief, underdog stories are not figments of writers’ imaginations. For every Stallone writing a Rocky, there’s a real-life athlete out there overcoming great odds to win the bout of their lives. Such is the case with the Dutch speed skater Yvonne van Gennip.

Not only was she expected to lose handily during the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, but most felt that she wouldn’t even be able to compete. Though in true heroic fashion, Gennip shocked the entire sporting world with her historic and heartwarming performance.

Yvonne Maria van Gennip

Born on May 1, 1964 in Haarlem, Netherlands, Yvonne Maria van Gennip is a former all-around speed skater who competed for the Dutch on the national and international levels and 3 separate Olympic Games. Although she is now considered as one of the greatest Dutch athletes in history, her career had a very turbulent start.

Gennip took to speed skating like a duck in water, but she didn’t seem to compete very well when called to task. While nerves may have played their own special part in Yvonne’s early failings, most suspect that she was simply unlucky enough to be plagued by injuries for most of her career. Some athletes are just more fragile than others, and even the best in the world is only as good as their body will allow.

Gennip’s Speed Skating Sweep of 1988

Gennip qualified for the Olympic Games as part of the Dutch team in 1988, heading into Sarajevo with aspirations of winning a medal in one of her 3 events. However, she wasn’t considered to be amongst the frontrunners in the 1000m, the 1500, or the 3000m. Just qualifying for the finals seemed to be a shock to most, and when Gennip’s best finish of the Games was a 5th place in the 3000m race, most felt she finished where she belonged – below the championship podium.

The lack of confidence in Yvonne’s abilities wasn’t a knock against her personally. It’s just that, during that period, the women of East Germany were incredibly talented speed skaters, and they were dominating the landscape in nearly every respect. Athletes like Christa Rothenburger, Karin Kania, Andrea Ehrig and Angela Stahnke, all of East Germany, were predicted to dominate the Games in 1988, with America’s Bonnie Blair also a strong contender for gold.

So, where Yvonne fit into this picture was clear. She didn’t.

To make matters even worse for the Dutch athlete, Gennip suffered a bad foot injury heading in the 1988 Games and needed to have surgery only 2 months before the races were to be held. If she didn’t stand a chance before, she definitely didn’t know.

Heading into the 3000m, the first of Yvonne’s 3 races, she was against a field that included 3 East German skaters, all of whom were a threat to break records and win gold. However, Gennip shocked everyone by dominating the competition. She ran the best race of her young career, winning the race by a stride and breaking the previous world record by 3 seconds. What’s also amazing is that the 2nd place finisher, Andrea Ehrig, also broke the existing record. So it was clear that Gennip was flying.

In the 5000m race, Gennip would duplicate those results and set yet another world record en route to her 2nd gold medal of the Games. She would defeat Ehrig again, but this time by a full 3 seconds. Heading into her 3rd race, Gennip was a clear target of the East Germans, yet still not favored to win.

Once again, however, Gennip would defeat the East Germans, this time Karin Kania, with a time of 2:00.68, good enough for an Olympic record.
When the smoke cleared, it was Yvonne on top of the world, winning 3 Olympic Gold Medals and dominating the Germans in all events. She never could duplicate those results in the 1992 Games, but she lives on in history as the underrated, injured Dutch skater who came out of nowhere and defeated all of East Germany.

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