An unwilling ankle prevents Jutta Leerdam from skating top times

Jutta Leerdam, the winner of the 1,000 meters.Image Klaas Jan van der Weij

Jutta Leerdam is never concerned with the others. She is focused on herself, always wants better, faster no matter what her opponents do. It is great that she is sweeping the competition at the European Championships in Thialf, but her emotions also reflect dissatisfaction about her left ankle. That joint hasn’t been doing what it wants for a while now.

It doesn’t hurt and Leerdam therefore doesn’t want to call it an injury. The ankle sometimes blocks a little. If she weren’t a skater, she would hardly notice the ‘discomfort’. She certainly wouldn’t go to the doctor for it. But she is also a skater and a perfectionist. Then an unwilling ankle is a problem. ‘Skating is so complex. It’s the most annoying sport for something like this. You have to have the perfect timing.’

The results of the 1,000 meters do not show that anything is wrong. She is as accurate as ever in her specialty. She beats Antoinette Rijpma-de Jong (1.15.04) and the Austrian Vanessa Herzog (1.15.74) in 1.14.45 and becomes European champion for the third time in a row.

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Erik van Lakerveld has been writing about Olympic sports such as skating, athletics and rowing since 2016.

Leerdam’s victory fits in with the image of the European Championship weekend. All women’s titles go to Dutch riders. The gap that Joy Beune, Irene Schouten and Marijke Groenewoud have in the team pursuit is also telling. In Europe, Dutch women encounter hardly any opposition.

Every now and then it is noticeable in her movements on the ice that something is not right with Leerdam. Then her slow stroke, with which she can develop a lot of speed, becomes even slower and less effective. It’s all about steering her skate at the end of her stroke. “Sometimes she feels like she can’t get her foot back in time,” says coach Jac Orie.

Lost timing

Leerdam also had a bit of that during the 1,000 meters on Sunday afternoon. “I tried to feel what I was doing.” She was looking too much for the timing of her stroke, which is different every day due to the recurring blockage in her ankle.

Leerdam therefore cannot fall back on ingrained automatisms, while this is especially important for such complex motor actions. ‘It’s never the case that my nervous system is set up for it. One day the ankle is stuck, the next day it’s loose, the next day it’s half-fixed.’

It is an ailment she had before, a few years ago. Then it happened to her now and then. Sometimes it was on the right, then on the left again. Now it’s always on the same side and keeps coming back. Sometimes after two days, sometimes again after two hours. ‘When I first step out of bed in the morning, I already know it’s not a good fit again.’ On competition days, there is always a physio nearby to massage her joint whenever Leerdam notices a negative change.

‘Top athletes naturally all want everything to be perfect,’ says Orie. He compares Leerdam’s problem with an ailment that everyone has at some point: a mild stiffness in the neck. That it is a little easier to look over one shoulder than the other. Not a big deal, but annoying. ‘Something that whines a bit in the background all the time.’

World Championship distances

Actually, Leerdam doesn’t want to talk too much about that left ankle and Orie is also afraid of exaggerating the condition. If only for the state of mind of his athlete. ‘Before you know it, she’s always afraid that her ankle is going to get stuck.’

Leerdam is not afraid yet. Annoyed, because despite her victories this winter, she knows that she could actually go much faster. “When you’re doing everything right, but your body is doing something that’s out of your control, it’s super frustrating,” she says. ‘I would rather have been in pain. Then you know: I have to let it rest and then the pain will disappear.’

Now we still have to find the cause of the problem. Orie has a suspicion. “Maybe it has to do with her shoes,” he says with some caution. ‘With the shoes she wears all day long. That could be part of it.”

She doesn’t know yet whether the solution has already been found. She takes into account that it could continue for a while. ‘All I can do now is just do everything right and stay very focused.’

And she remains hopeful on the way to the World Championship distances, where the competition will be stiffer than at the European Championships. Maybe that’s exactly what she needs, not so much the others, but the weight that a world championship brings. ‘I have some confidence in it. It could well be that when I am preparing for those big competitions, that ankle suddenly loosens. That he is good, stable and my coordination is better, that I am more rested and that maybe he will suddenly keep it up.’

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