Four years ago, Canada's powerful speed-skating program was in the midst of an identity crisis. Once a medal-producing machine, it won just two at the Sochi Olympics – the lowest count in 20 years.
In the Netherlands, where speed skating is debated and dissected as passionately as hockey is in Canada, commentators wondered: What happened to the mighty Canadians? The country that once churned out dominant skaters such as Catriona Le May Doan, Cindy Klassen, Clara Hughes and Gaétan Boucher, could no longer muster a single gold medal at the Olympics.
Something was needed to jolt the program back to life – and to rebuild its culture of winning. But no one inside Speed Skating Canada would have predicted their saviour would be Ted-Jan Bloemen.
On Thursday, the lanky 31-year-old who carries a Canadian passport and skates with his surfer hair tied neatly into a man-bun, shattered the Olympic record in the men's 10,000-metre race, the sport's most gruelling discipline.
In doing so, he beat Sven Kramer, a superstar from the Netherlands who is considered the best long-distance speed skater in the history of the sport.
The race results don't do it justice. On paper, Mr. Bloemen finished first with a time of 12 minutes 39.77 seconds. Mr. Kramer finished sixth, more than 21 seconds back. But when Mr. Kramer, the world champion, realized mid-race that he couldn't match Mr. Bloemen's pace, the superstar began to unravel, lap by lap. Back in the Netherlands, children crowded around television sets at schools and watched a national hero implode.
"He did what a lot of people thought was impossible," Canadian coach Bart Schouten said of Mr. Bloemen's race. "He beat Sven Kramer – it's huge."
The only time Canada has made the podium in that particular event was in 1932, with a bronze. Years ago, Canada was written off as a country that couldn't produce legitimate contenders in long-track speed skating's longest distances.
But that's where the Bloemen story gets interesting. In the summer of 2014, Mr. Schouten – himself originally from the Netherlands – heard that a relatively unknown skater from his old country wanted to compete for Canada. He didn't know much about Mr. Bloemen, and what he heard wasn't encouraging: The guy was difficult, disgruntled and he'd bounced around from team to team, which is never a good sign. "He had a bit of a reputation," Mr. Schouten said.
The way Mr. Bloemen tells it, all he wanted was a shot.
He saw himself as a great skater, even if no one else in the Dutch national program did. If he could only get out, he knew he could excel. There were just too many talented skaters around him – and ahead of him.
"I always felt from deep inside that I was able to do something special on the ice, but I was never able to show it," Mr. Bloemen said. "I had to find a different way."
His father, who was born in New Brunswick and moved back to the Netherlands as a boy, urged him to try Canada. When Mr. Schouten eventually began working with the new recruit, he found a skater who was not bitter, just hungry for success, and in the process of maturing.
Mr. Bloemen was grateful to be welcomed in Canada with open arms, something he didn't necessarily expect. He was worried about being cast as an opportunist, so he doubled-down. He became Canadian, his girlfriend moved to Calgary and they got married in Canada.
Mr. Bloemen's impact on the Canadian team has been remarkable. Before his arrival, Canadian skaters often considered the Dutch unbeatable. And that wasn't necessarily an exaggeration: In Sochi, they took at least one medal in every speed-skating event, and won eight out of the 12 gold medals available.
"I think it's human nature a little bit to tell yourself, 'Oh you're good, but you're never as good as these guys,'" said Jordan Belchos, Mr. Bloemen's teammate and training partner.
But Mr. Bloemen wasn't intimidated and he changed that mindset. He talked openly of setting world records. At first, the boasting sounded ridiculous – until he started doing it.
In 2015, Mr. Bloemen took Mr. Kramer's 10,000-metre world record, and in December he stripped him of the 5,000-metre record. Suddenly, people began learning his name.
Soon, his world-beating attitude became infectious within Speed Skating Canada. Lost in the hoopla of Mr. Bloemen's gold medal win on Thursday is the fact that Mr. Belchos also beat Mr. Kramer, placing fifth. His time of 12:59.51 was more than a second and a half ahead of the Dutch hero.
Jorrit Bergsma of the Netherlands won the silver medal, 2.21 seconds back of Mr. Bloemen, while Italy's Nicola Tumolero claimed the bronze, 14.55 seconds behind.
Asked about his race, Mr. Kramer replied: "It wasn't good enough."
It is Mr. Bloemen's second medal of the Olympics, after he won silver in the men's 5,000-metre race earlier this week, placing second to Mr. Kramer. Mr. Bloemen has a shot at a third medal for Canada in the team pursuit next week.
In Mr. Bloemen, Speed Skating Canada has a skater who can win, but he is also a skater who the program helped develop over the past four years.
"We know we can produce skaters if we give them a chance," said Susan Auch, a three-time Olympic medalist who is now head of Speed Skating Canada. "I'm sure kids are going to be looking at Ted now and thinking, 'Wow, if he did it, I can do it, too.'"
His performance in Pyeongchang is one that even Mr. Bloemen struggles to comprehend.
Sitting on the sidelines, watching Mr. Kramer falter, and realizing he had the gold in his hands, Mr. Bloemen fought back tears.
"It's really hard to put that moment into words," he said. "It's just a really slow realization that you're becoming an Olympic Champion. … It's really, really incredible."
After years of swimming upstream in the Dutch speed-skating system, Mr. Bloemen is now the one who got away. He is now part of a resurgence in Canadian speed skating.
The Canadian Press