U.S. speed skater Heather Bergsma, who competed under her maiden name, Heather Richardson, at the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics, is a world record holder and world champion going for her first Olympic medal in PyeongChang.
Speed skating beginnings
Bergsma was introduced to skating through her parents, who both raced and did artistic skating on quad (four-wheeled) roller skates. Growing up two minutes from the local roller rink in High Point, North Carolina, Bergsma was so in love with skating that she remembers wanting to go skating even when she was sick.
At age nine, a local coach spotted Bergsma at the rink and suggested she start taking inline speed skating classes. Her parents forced her to wait a year before entering her first competition, which she says is one reason she got hooked on the sport.
“I went to my first race and won everything,” Bergsma said, “so I think that made me really excited to stay with the sport.”
Bergsma competed on inline skates for nine years, but made the move onto the ice after graduating high school.
“I’d just finished skating in 2007,” Bergsma said.” I finished the world championships on inlines. I came home for two weeks and I made a phone call to [Olympic champion speed skater] Derek Parra and was, like, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in trying ice speed skating. Can I join the group?’ At the time, he had a group called W.H.I.P., which is Wheels to Ice Program. And so within two weeks, I had all my bags packed, and my parents drove me to Salt Lake City.”
The transition was more difficult than she expected, though. The first time she stepped onto the ice, Derek Parra told her she looked like “Bambi on ice.” But it didn’t take long for Bergsma to become comfortable on ice skates, and she made her debut on the World Cup circuit two months later.
After an unremarkable showing in her Olympic debut at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics—she finished 6th in 500m, 9th in 1000m and 16th in the 1500m—Bergsma found her winning stride in 2013. She started the year by winning gold at the 2013 World Sprint Championships, a competition which combines times from the 500m and 1000m races.
Then in the competitive season before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Bergsma won the 1000m race at three of the four World Cup events.
Sochi Olympic experience
Although she entered the 2014 Sochi Olympics a medal favorite in the 1000m, Bergsma struggled along with the rest of the U.S. speed skating team. She finished seventh in both the 1000m and 1500m events, and 8th in the 2x500m.
But she did have a few reasons to celebrate in Sochi: her then fiancée and now husband, Dutch speed skater Jorrit Bergsma, won gold in the 10,000m and bronze in the 5000m.
A few months after the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Bergsma moved to the Netherlands to live and train with Jorrit and his Dutch professional team. Now based in the most successful speed skating country in the world, Bergsma became one of the sport’s most consistent stars.
At the last three World Single Distance Championships, Bergsma has won nine total medals, including three golds: 500m in 2015, and 1000m and 1500m in 2017. She’ll be a podium favorite in all three distances at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
Bergsma will also be a top contender in the mass start, an event that is being added to the Olympic program in 2018. Bergsma won bronze in the mass start, which sees a group of up to 24 skaters race simultaneously instead of in pairs, at the 2017 World Single Distance Championships.
Bergsma has held the world record in the 1500m since November 2015. She also broke the 1000m world record in 2015—but she held the honor for just eight days before her teammate and friendly rival, Brittany Bowe, bettered it to claim the record for herself.
Bergsma describes her rivalry with Bowe as “definitely friendly. We bring out the best in each other.”
Before Bergsma steps onto the ice, she always completes her good luck ritual: putting on Chapstick. Her teammates tease her for her dedication to the lip balm, but her coach decided to support her habit with a birthday gift.
“My coach actually collected ChapSticks from each place that we went to for the World Cup circuit and gave it to me for my birthday at the end of the year. So I’m stocked up now,” Bergsma said.
“The years leading up to Sochi, I had one medal at the World Single Distance Championships, only a bronze. And going into these [2018 PyeongChang] Games, I’ve medaled at every world championships leading into Korea. So that was a big goal of mine is to have medals there, to prove to myself that it is possible.” — Heather Bergsma
Off the ice
Bergsma met Jorrit Bergsma, her future husband, on the World Cup circuit during the 2011-12 season and reached out to him via Twitter. He proposed in the spring of 2013, Bergsma moved to Jorrit’s hometown of Aldeboarn, the Netherlands in 2014 and they married in May 2015.
While the transition was difficult—Bergsma remembers crying of homesickness when she first got there, and says she still calls her mom three times a day—Jorrit tried his best to make her feel at home. Bergsma said the best date they ever went on was on the Fourth of July, when Jorrit took her to an American restaurant in the Netherlands for a special American dinner.
But Bergsma has embraced Dutch culture, and became a fan of a Dutch show called “Boer Zoekt Vrouw.”
“I think you could compare it to something like The Bachelorette,” she said. Except instead of personal trainers and software salesman competing for an engagement ring, “It’s farmers looking for love.”