Yara van Kerkhof: the heart of a lion ~ Passion/Patin/Vitesse - Passion/Speed/Skating


27 août 2018

Yara van Kerkhof: the heart of a lion

She may have been overshadowed by teammates such as Suzanne Schulting and Sjinkie Knegt in the past, but Yara van Kerkhof’s desire to win and her irreproachable behaviour as an athlete is what made her shine. While another shadow tries to take away her light, the 28 years old athlete from Zoetermeer focuses on remaining positive.

By Carl Savard
Photos by Carl Savard, Oscar van den Bosch and Yara van Kerkhof's personnal collection

The sunrise
Being born in the land of speed skating pretty much means you’ll put on skates for the first time at a pretty young age. “I think I was seven when I started. My parents were active people because they liked doing sport but they were not competitive. They liked skating on frozen lakes during winter so my sister and I started pretty young.” The sister she’s talking about is Sanne van Kerkhof. Three years older, Sanne was part of the Dutch team that competed at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic games. She retired in 2015. Yara admits that for a few years, Sanne helped her become a better skater by pushing her to be great. If their parents were not competitive, the van Kerkhof’s sisters were. “I always wanted to be in the national team and when I turned 19 it became a reality. When I moved to Heerenveen to train with the national team, my sister and I became more competitive. We used to live together and in the kitchen we had a sheet of paper where we would keep family records, top speeds and things like that. Sometimes we had fights about it. Once, I beat a family record but she said it didn’t count because she wasn’t at the training when I did it.” Her competitive spirit is known by the entire team. Coaches and teammates all praise the devotion and work ethic that helped her win two medals at the 2018 Winter Olympics..

A gloomy cloud
When talking about her childhood, I did skip an information, something that could have been just a detail in someone else’s story but that is, more than 20 years later, a source of distraction for the Pyeongchang silver medallist. As a kid, a doctor found that she had a congenital heart defect and she had surgery to correct the situation when she was 7 years old. Her dad has clear memories of the situation. “I remember it like it was yesterday. She needed open heart surgery to repair a hole in her heart. It was necessary because Yara was always very tired and didn't grow up at a normal pace. Besides that, she was often ill. There was no other option than to have this surgery.” Although her heart is perfectly fine now, it is reacting differently to effort and different tests resulted in irregular data when compared to most athletes. The congenital heart defect has been repaired by the operation, but the irregular blood flow going through her lungs hasn’t changed.  After a team of experts helped her explain the situation to the International Skating Union (ISU) she was cleared of any suspicion by the ISU, but it seems the explanation isn’t clear enough for the World Anti-Doping Agency. “It's a really hard time for me, but I try to keep positive.  I know I've always been clean, so the only option is that it will be all fine eventually.” She will have to present her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The date hasn't been announced yet but I’m sure van Kerkhof can’t wait for this matter to be behind her.

When asked about Yara van Kerkhof, family, friends, teammates and coaches were unanimous. Her coach’s answer came without hesitation. “We call her “Pit bull”. She’s probably one of the smallest girl competing on the circuit but she has a lion’s heart. She is a great athlete to work with, very focused. She does everything to get the best out of herself.” As the Netherlands’ national head coach, Jeroen Otter as a lot to do with van Kerkhof’s silver medal on 500m at the Pyeongchang olympic games and it’s not just because he is known to built physically strong athletes. When we met in March, the “Pit bull”, as Otter calls her, told me about an important discussion she had with her coach in 2017. “In Budapest at the beginning of the season, I skated a B final and I was happy, but Jeroen wasn’t. He asked me why I was happy and I told him, ‘Well I just skated a B final!’ and his answer was ‘You can win medals! You shouldn’t be happy!’ It was an important moment. It grounded me and forced me to think about medals instead of thinking that B finals were good. In Dordrecht a week later, I did two A finals where I finished fourth but did great races and later in the season I won a medal in Seoul. With those words at the beginning of the season, Jeroen woke me up.”    

Rianne de Vries who’s been skating alongside van Kerkhof for six years now, also talks about how professional her teammate is, but she adds more. “Yara is very focused when it comes to training, but outside of the ice she is nice and sweet and she cares for her teammates. When I broke my ankle, she would frequently check on me to see how I was doing and she would motivate me.” Daan Breeuwsma who’s been skating alongside van Kerkhof for even longer went even further. “She never skips training and always makes sure to sleep and eat well. She is a great person who likes to have fun with friends, but she always has her sport in mind. Yara is the perfect athlete.”

Since 2012, van Kerkhof’s career has been on the rise. If from 2012 to 2016 results were mainly related to the amazing job she was doing with her teammates on the relay, things picked up during the 2016-2017 season. She started the season with a bronze medal on the second 500m of the competition in World cup Calgary and ended it with a bronze medal on the only 500m of the weekend in Minsk.

She even won a silver medal in inline speed skating on 100m sprint at the Dutch national championships. “I like inline. We do it in training in the summer so I thought why not try the national championships. I would have to train more if I wanted to do more competition though. In short track I know the feelings, but I don’t have it in inline. It’s really different.” Last season, her collection got bigger. She won a bronze medal at World cup Seoul on 1000m and reached star status with two olympic medals in Pyeongchang, winning the bronze and beating the world record with her teammates on the relay and grabbing a silver medal on 500m.

If physically her heart came out with a flaw, the way she uses it is flawless. She is passionate about her sport and her health, she is likeable to anyone crossing her path and she is sweet and caring towards her friends. Jeroen Otter says she has the heart of a lion. I say lions should be proud.

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