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pyeongchang 2018

Speed skaters travel faster than 50 km per hour on the track, so when a coach wants to bark instructions, there's only a split second to get the message across.

With Canadian Ted-Jan Bloemen on the cusp of an Olympic medal in the 5000m race on Sunday his coach Bart Schoeten saw the skater fading and resorted to emergency measures.

"You've got to fight. Fight him, fight him," Schouten blared over and over. But there was no response. Perhaps Bloemen didn't hear the coach. Perhaps it was just too many words.

So the next time Bloemen came around, with two-and-a-half laps remaining, the coach shouted the only thing that mattered: "This is for a medal!"

Then something remarkable happened – Bloemen mounted a comeback. His final two laps, the coach would later say, were among the best of the entire gruelling race. Bloemen caught Norway's Sverre Lunde on the homestretch and crossed the finish line with millimetres to spare, using the tip of his right skate blade to claim the silver medal in a photo finish.

If Bloemen wore smaller skates, he may have had to settle for bronze.

It is the first Canadian medal in the 5000m in 86 years, and only the second time the country has made the podium in that event since Willy Logan won a bronze in 1932.

The silver also caps a remarkable voyage for Bloemen, a Dutch skater who four years ago decided to uproot his life and move to Canada in order to save his flagging skating career. Struggling to find his way inside the Dutch speed skating machine – a country so rich with talent that Bloemen couldn't stick with a team for longer than a year – his father suggested he take drastic measures.

Gerhard-Jan Bloemen was born in Bathurst, N.B., but moved to the Netherlands as a boy, when his family relocated back to their homeland. His dad, a pragmatist, suggested Ted-Jan take advantage of their dual citizenship. So in 2014, Bloemen flew to Calgary and joined the Canadian team, which was happy to take him.

The move was a revelation, both coach and skater say. Bloemen matured, he got married, and he began to train more seriously, and more effectively. In short, Bloemen tasted opportunity in Calgary and he wanted more of it. A key contributor to his success, he says, was being accepted by the Canadian program with open arms.

"That's just something that I'm really grateful for. That was obviously really important," he said. "I chose a different path and it all turned out better than I could've hoped."

Asked what he might be doing today had he decided four years ago not to come to Canada, Bloemen shrugged. "I have no idea," he said. "I probably wouldn't be skating."

Now he is an Olympic medallist, and one of the top skaters in the Canadian program, with two world records to his name, in the 10,000m and 5000m, which he set in 2015 and 2017.

The man Bloemen took those records from, Dutch superstar Sven Kramer, is also the one who kept him from the gold medal on Sunday. Kramer, the sport's most dominant skater over the past decade – and possibly its best ever – won the 5000m race in a time of 6:09.76. It was a new Olympic record, but not enough to reclaim the world record of 6:01.86 from Bloemen, which was set a few months ago in Salt Lake City.

Kramer now has eight Olympic medals, including four gold – more hardware than any other men's speed skater in history. "It's nice to make history," Kramer said afterward, adding that he would rather turn his attention to his next race, where he is favoured to win a ninth medal.

The only thing Sunday's event lacked was a direct showdown between Bloemen and Kramer, who were placed in different pairings, much to the dismay of speed skating aficionados.

The two are similar in some ways – they are both 31, and were born four months apart: Kramer, in the Dutch speed skating hotbed of Heerenvein, and Bloemen about 160 km away in Leiderdorp, a town of about 27,000.

However, they live remarkably different lives now. Kramer is one of his country's richest athletes, with top speed skaters in the Netherlands enjoying a lifestyle akin to NHL players in Canada. Bloemen on the other hand is only now making his way up the rankings of the sport. Bloemen recently signed an endorsement deal where he was paid in cryptocurrency as a gimmick.

Before Bloemen claimed the two world records, Kramer was considered almost-unbeatable in the sport.

"He's been so dominant for so many years, and he's been so consistent. It's really amazing what he's done really," Bloemen said. "So that just makes it really awesome when you can take something from him… it's just an awesome challenge."

Bloemen will now have to wait until the 10,000m event in Pyeongchang for another shot at Kramer.

Despite his move to Canada, Bloemen said there is no ill-will between them – not even some good-natured trackside trash talk. "I think they're too proud for that," Bloemen said.

But after leaving the Netherlands to find his way in the sport, does he ever say anything to them? "No I also don't do that," Bloemen said. "That's just not me."

He prefers to let his skating do the talking, and his coach do the shouting. When asked if he heard Schouten bellowing about the medal at the end of the race, Bloemen laughed. He did. Even at silver-medal speed, some things are impossible to miss.