“I want to put down the best possible race I can,” says Cornelius Kersten, the first British long-track speed skater to make a Winter Olympics in 30 years. “To get the official word a few days ago was like a weight falling off the shoulders. It’s official now, it’s actually going to happen and it feels amazing. My ambition is now to be there in the best shape of my life.”
The history of British Olympic speed skating is hardly voluminous, one bronze medal being the extent of it. Of late, Elise Christie has helped to burnish the national reputation in the short‑track form, with the Scot winning world and European titles, but the long track – the icy equivalent of a track cycling time trial – has been out of the reach of these temperate isles for a generation.
Kersten qualifies after a number of personal bests in the World Cup series last year and will compete in the 1,000m and 1,500m events. His success comes after years of dedication and development, often without any official funding, and he has grown alongside his partner, the fellow British speed skater Ellia Smeding. They share a passion and a business but also a location, one that in speed skating is worth almost half a second in itself: the Netherlands.
It is speed skating’s pre-eminent nation: there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to Dutch records in the sport. Kersten’s father is Dutch and also a passionate skater, one who completed the Elfstedentocht; a 200km, 11-city race that has not been staged since 1997 because it has not been cold enough. Raised in the Netherlands, Kersten has absorbed that Dutch culture – “People are very into it and they’ve been doing it for centuries and most people think they know best” – and is also part of Heerenveen’s Team Worldstream Corendon, known as the NXTGN and marketed like a team of esport professionals.
Yet Kersten says he skates like a Briton. “How me and El go at it is [not to say] we know best but: ‘OK, what can we learn.’” And when he came to the last year of his career as a youth skater, he chose to represent the country of his mother. “I had the option to compete for the Netherlands, but I switched,” he says, citing the influence of Stephen Airey, the man who helped to build the British long-track programme and continues to work as its development manager in a voluntary capacity. “He was the one who gave us the room to grow and I’d always wanted to represent Team GB, so it became a really easy decision to make,” Kersten says.
Smeding shares a similar biography, and the pair have been living together in Heerenveen, round the corner from the Thialf ice arena, and skating for the past three years. That skating has often been at night, however, as during the day they are busy roasting, packaging and shipping coffee beans. Brew ’22 is the name of the couple’s company and it has been a success, generating funds that have allowed them to continue competing, with Kersten otherwise qualifying for only IOC solidarity funding.
Kersten says he would not recommend running a business to any other active athlete. “Coffee is my passion and Brew is our little baby so it’s very easy to put a lot of time and effort into it, but it does sometimes take time and energy when you would rather have a nap in the afternoon.”
His preferred drink is a filter coffee and he would like to convert others to the more subtle flavours of a pour-over brew. But before that he would like to give long-track skating a kickstart in the UK. “I think the sport needs to grow and we need more recognition. I’d like to inspire people to get involved and hopefully get a track in the UK. At the moment we’re a small sport, and I hope the Games will help that.”
Long-track skating is a sport that has finally come in from the cold and, while Kersten is unlikely to return from Beijing with a medal, he makes for an effective ambassador. What, in the end, does he love the most about his discipline? “For me that’s the speed of it. When you throw yourself into a corner at 40mph you’re in control but you’re also slightly out of control, too. One wrong move and you’re out, you’re flying into the cushions. But if you hit it right, you absolutely blast through … and that’s amazing.”