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Ted-Jan Bloemen sprouts his speedskating wings with Canadian team

Ted-Jan Bloemen got stuck in the powerful machine that is Dutch speedskating. It took a move to Canada to free him.

Since he stepped off the plane at Calgary International Airport on June 3, 2014, Bloemen has set world records in the men's 10,000 and 5,000 metres and won multiple world championship and World Cup medals wearing the Maple Leaf.

The intimate culture of Canada's long-track team at the Olympic Oval suited him better than the hypercompetitive hothouse of the Netherlands, where he nearly fell through the cracks.

"I think it held me down," Bloemen said. "I think that's why I made such a huge progression after I moved to Canada."

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Canada's Ted-Jan Bloemen competes in the men's 5,000 meter race of the Speedskating World Cup at the Thialf ice rink in Heerenveen, Netherlands, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. Bloemen got stuck in the powerful machine that is Dutch speedskating. It took a move to Canada to free him.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Peter Dejong

Canada's Ted-Jan Bloemen competes in the men's 5,000 meter race of the Speedskating World Cup at the Thialf ice rink in Heerenveen, Netherlands, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. Bloemen got stuck in the powerful machine that is Dutch speedskating. It took a move to Canada to free him.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Peter Dejong

Ted-Jan Bloemen got stuck in the powerful machine that is Dutch speedskating. It took a move to Canada to free him.

Since he stepped off the plane at Calgary International Airport on June 3, 2014, Bloemen has set world records in the men's 10,000 and 5,000 metres and won multiple world championship and World Cup medals wearing the Maple Leaf.

The intimate culture of Canada's long-track team at the Olympic Oval suited him better than the hypercompetitive hothouse of the Netherlands, where he nearly fell through the cracks.

"I think it held me down," Bloemen said. "I think that's why I made such a huge progression after I moved to Canada."

Lest he be labelled an athlete-tourist or a "Plastic Canadian," the 31-year-old Bloemen has gone all-in on Canada.

His father's birthplace of Bathurst, N.B., may have given Bloemen the avenue to compete for Canada, but Bloemen obtained his Canadian citizenship and married Dutch girlfriend Marlinde Kraaijeveld in a ceremony in Calgary after his arrival.

"Before I moved to Canada, we were dating for half a year," Bloemen said. "We were actually going to break up. I couldn't ask her to come with me. That was too much to ask.

"Then she said 'Maybe I could try and see how it goes?' I was like 'Yesssss.' Lucky me."

Cold winters when Bloemen was a youngster froze solid the lakes and canals around his hometown of Gouda, home of the famous cheese.

Bloemen did what his countrymen do — strap on the long blades and go gliding.

"People were saying 'Look at this little boy. He's terrific,'" his mother Gretha recalled. "He was already skating very beautifully."

Speedskating tours — ultramarathons for both competitive skaters and weekend warriors — are common in the Netherlands with the longest the 200-kilometre, 11-city Elfstedentocht.

At age 11, Bloemen demonstrated a talent for endurance when he participated in an 84-kilometre, nine-village tour.

"He succeeded to do that tour," his father Gerhard-Jan said. "It was the first time he ran out of energy in his body because he didn't eat enough."

An up-and-coming skater trying to gain a foothold on the Dutch national team, Bloemen had to peak for qualifying races just to get into World Cups and world championships, which didn't allow him recover for the big race.

Speedskating in the Netherlands is similar to pro cycling and Bloemen bounced from team to team.

"I couldn't really find a good, solid base for myself," he said. "After eight or 10 years, I thought 'That's enough. I've got to find something different if I really want to be a world champion.'

"The way the Canadian team embraced me on the team was really special to me. They showed me a lot of respect and they had a lot of faith in me as a skater.

"Also, with our team, we work together really well and we really support each other, we cheer for each other. This is a big change and mindset for me and I think it suits me a lot better."

The benefits of his relocation have been a two-way street, according to Canadian team coach Bart Schouten.

In addition to being a medal threat in the 10,000 and 5,000, Bloemen brings his endurance to the men's team pursuit, which pits teams of three against each other, similar to track cycling.

"He can really lead us in that he's super-strong as a finisher in that race," Schouten said.

The men's 5,000 metres is set for Sunday with the 10,000 slated for Feb. 15. The team pursuit finals are Feb. 21.

Bloemen broke a pair of world records previous held by Sven Kramer, whose celebrity status in the Netherlands is equivalent to Sidney Crosby in Canada.

He took almost a second and a half off the 5,000-metre mark on Dec. 10 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he posted a time of 6:01.86 seconds.

On Nov. 21, 2015, Bloemen knocked almost five seconds off the 10,000 record.

Both Bloemen and his parents say the Dutch reaction to him racing for Canada has been supportive.

When a country wins eight of 12 gold medals and 23 out of a total of 36 in long track, which the Netherlands did in the 2014 Winter Games, it can afford to feel generous with its talent.

"On TV also, they have a lot of respect for what he did, leaving everything behind and going to Canada and going his own way," Gretha said.

Gerhard-Jan lived in Canada for seven years before his family returned to the Netherlands in 1964.

The parents weren't surprised by their son's move to the country of his father's birth, but they knew what a big step it was for Ted-Jan. They miss each other.

"The distance between Canada and Holland is a long way," Gerhard-Jan said. "Sometimes you can feel the effort he made to get his goals when you feel the distance is so long between him and his family."

Bloemen's switch to Canada was about more than finding a flag to race under. It was about finding a place he felt he belonged and becoming the speedskater he always knew he could be.

"There have been a few Dutch skaters who have moved to other countries to skate for other countries and just to qualify for international competition," he said. "But they didn't really commit to the country and contribute to the country they went to.

"I became a Canadian and took part in the Canadian team and did my best to make everybody better and share my experience with the team. It's a very different approach."

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