HEERENVEEN, the Netherlands — Jordan Stolz, an 18-year-old American speedskater who is already one of the best in the sport, this weekend will race in front of 12,500 screaming Dutch fans at his first world speedskating championships.
Almost all of them will be rooting for him to lose.
The fans will be cheering for their countrymen, yes, but they will also be hoping that Stolz does not immediately make good on his potential to dominate the sport for the next decade. At these championships, Stolz is in Dutch territory, literally and figuratively.
Until this season, he had barely raced in front of crowds numbering more than a few dozen, owing to the coronavirus pandemic and speedskating’s lack of popularity in the United States. In an interview this week sitting in the stands of Thialf, the famed Dutch cathedral of speedskating, Stolz sounded excited about what was to come.
“Skating in general, in an arena that is just empty, is a little bit boring,” Stolz said. “So, when there is a crowd, it is for sure amplifying.” He added: “If they want me to crash, then hopefully it doesn’t happen.”
His coach, Bob Corby, sounded positively giddy about the possibility. “Is he ready to be the villain?” Corby asked in an email. “Oh yeah! He is definitely ready for that!” Besides, Corby said, “He likes beating the Dutch!”
Dutch speedskaters have won the most medals at each Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Games, and the country supports several professional teams. The Netherlands, with a population of nearly 18 million, boasts eight fully indoor speedskating arenas; the United States has two.
The best Dutch skaters openly admit that Stolz is one of the biggest threats to them. Thomas Krol, an Olympic champion who has struggled this season, identified Stolz, along with Krol’s compatriots Hein Otterspeer and Kjeld Nuis, as the favorites in 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter races.
“I was hoping to say I was the top favorite, but I have to be realistic,” Krol said. “The top favorites in the 1,000 are Hein and Jordan. And in the 1,500, Kjeld and Jordan as well.”
As much as the Dutch want to beat Stolz, however, they are also protective of him as he grows into his potential.
Stolz’s most dramatic race of the season occurred two weeks ago in Poland, the weekend after he skated a leg-deadening 20,000 meters across eight races in dominating the junior world championships. In the 1,500 meters, he was paired with Nuis, who holds the world record and is the two-time defending Olympic champion in the event.
Nuis held a sizable lead heading into the final 200 meters, but Stolz rode a perfect line through the final curve and slingshotted ahead, seemingly getting even stronger on the final straightaway as Nuis visibly faded.
“I thought: He arrives with tired legs,” Nuis told NOS, the Dutch national broadcaster, after the race. “And then you get spanked.”
He had a warning for his competitors: “At the world championships, he will be better than today,” Nuis said.
An even more notable interaction between the two occurred in November, during a World Cup event in Heerenveen.
Prompted during an interview with NOS, Stolz said there wasn’t “more than a 10-percent chance” that he would break Nuis’s track record in the 1,500 meters. The headline on the article about the interview, though, said Stolz “dreams” of breaking the track record.
He did not come close, finishing in ninth place. After the race, Nuis scolded NOS for its headline. “I don’t like putting words in an 18-year-old boy’s mouth,” he said.
Nuis said his defense of Stolz came from his own early career struggles, when he began having success and people started expecting him to win world championships. “Everyone said, ‘Ahh, of course you will win.’ That is the hardest thing to say to an athlete: ‘It will be easy.’ It is never easy. Jordan, or when I skate good, we make it look easy, but it is not.”
The pressure to win is immense, and it can be debilitating. Nuis said he began doing “mental training” to deal with the expectations. Krol said he used a sports psychologist after he won world championship medals but began treating every race as a referendum on whether he would be able to make, and then win, the Olympics.
Last year, as a 17-year-old, Stolz qualified for the Olympics in Beijing, though his best finish was 13th place. “The Olympics is a whole new beast,” said Joey Mantia, who won a bronze medal as part of the United States team pursuit at those Games. “You see a ton of great athletes their first time through; it’s the experience that matters the first time.”
In the months after, Stolz shot straight to the top of speedskating. He won four races at World Cup events, the most of any man, and collected nine medals in total. He finished the season in the top five in the 500 meters, 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters, despite competing in only five of six World Cups.
The World Cup he missed conflicted with the junior world championships last month in Inzell, Germany, where Stolz won what speedskating calls the “allround” title in a rout, collecting four gold medals and two bronze medals.
These remarkable four months of competition have speedskating luminaries predicting future success for Stolz that seems almost impossible to imagine.
“If he continues on his path, he will crush through a couple short-distance world records, if not all three,” Mantia said. “I think he has medal opportunities in five events in the next Olympics.”
If predictions of world records — he already holds two junior world records and the American national record in the 500 meters, which he will also race this weekend — weren’t grandiose enough, Stolz is being earnestly compared to perhaps the greatest speedskater ever.
“I don’t dare to say because it is a big comparison, but obviously he looks like the modern-day Eric Heiden,” said Gerard Kemkers, an Olympic medalist who coached both the United States and Dutch national teams.
It is obviously unfair, and premature, to compare an 18-year-old who has won just a handful of World Cup events to Heiden, who won his first world championship at 18 and then took all five gold medals at the 1980 Olympics when he was 21.
“No, I don’t think it is unfair to compare them,” Corby, Stolz’s coach, said. “It is hard not to compare them because of his age.”
The parallels between the two are uncanny. Both are from Wisconsin, both qualified for the Olympics as 17-year-olds but did not win any medals and both started winning the next season as 18-year-olds. Heiden won his first world championship at 18, and Stolz can match that achievement this weekend.
One of the few people not comparing Stolz to Heiden is Heiden, who went to medical school after his skating career and became an orthopedic surgeon, including for the Sacramento Kings. Instead, Heiden invokes a different athletic prodigy. “I can remember when LeBron James walked onto the court and I saw him in his rookie year. There was just sort of this aura around him that I see around Jordan,” he said.
Still, when Heiden talks about his emergence as a star, he could just as easily be referring to Stolz. “In ’77, I won the men’s allround world championships,” Heiden said. “The next weekend, I went to the junior world championships; it was like taking candy from a kid. I went to the world sprint championships, and my confidence was raging.”
Demands on Stolz’s time — from sponsors, fans and the media — are already rising, and soon the pressures Nuis and Krol have experienced will find him, too. If he performs as well as everybody thinks he will over the next three years, he will be one of the faces of the American team at the 2026 Winter Games in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
Three days before his first race, Stolz was sanguine about it all. He feels confident and prepared, and prefers to focus on the process. “And if it’s a perfect race and I still haven’t gotten a medal, then I’ll just have to accept that,” he said.
His approach is an appropriate one for speedskating, a simple sport. There are no heats and no qualifiers. There are no re-dos. There is one race, and the skater with the best time wins. As Stolz chases his first world championship gold medal, he has embraced an approach that will be recognizable to any teenager.
“When it’s all or nothing, you just have to go out like it’s all or nothing,” Stolz said. “So, I’ll just have to, I guess, send it.”