On the second-to-last day of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Claudia Pechstein will turn 42. Even at this ripe old age, Pechstein looks to have a good chance to capture a 10th Olympic career medal in Sochi.
The 1992 Winter Games in Albertville marked the first time that Germany entered the Olympics with a single team, following the country's reunification in 1990. And the best results for the newly united Germany came from the speed skaters, who won a total of 11 medals at the games in neighboring France.
A young woman from Berlin was among them, taking the bronze medal in the 5,000 meters. Twenty-two years later, that same woman, Claudia Pechstein is back on the team, and in speed-skating, she is (almost) the only German hope for a medal.
This fact is indicative of the direction that speed-skating has been going in over the past several years. Although Germany has three modern indoor speed-skating facilities in Berlin, Erfurt and Inzell, there has been a distinct lack of young athletes taking up the sport, with the potential to become successful at the highest level. Pechstein has been one of the most outspoken critics of the current state of her sport in Germany.
"Most of them don't have the general attitude that would make them be prepared to torture themselves," Pechstein has said more than once. Clearly, this is not an example of how to make friends and influence people.
Training with the men
But this is simply how Claudia Pechstein is, she's the kind of person who goes for it, particularly when it comes to her chosen sport. She skates around 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) on ice per year, plus, 2,000 on inliners in preseason training. Another 4,000 she clocks up riding a bike. And another thing; she only trains with men; women simply aren't fast enough for her.
Pechstein got off to a great start to this Olympic season, winning the 3,000 meters in Calgary in December, chalking up her 30th career World Cup victory. She followed this up with further successes as the season wore on. Shortly before leaving for Sochi, Pechstein even set a new record time over 3,000 for the indoor facility at Inzell.
Pechstein could also profit from the fact that she already knows the oval to be used at the Sochi games, having competed at the world championships there last year, when she won two bronze medals, in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters. These were Germany's only medals of the competition.
One contributing factor to her outstanding form has been an improvement in the sharpening of her skates. She spent around two years fiddling with a sharpening machine to get the setting just right.
"The machine delivers top quality, I'd never had such a glide," Pechstein said.
Two-year ban remains controversial
One reason Pechstein is so determined to take home some silverware from Sochi is the fact that she was forced to sit out the 2010 Games in Vancouver due to a controversial doping ban. In 2009, the sport's governing body, the International Skating Union (ISU), suspended her from competition for a period of two years after her blood profile turned up abnormal cell readings. She was the first athlete to be banned from competition without having had a positive drug test. Pechstein, backed by some German doctors, maintains that an abnormality inherited from her father was responsible for the abnormal blood values.
And while she is back on the ice, Pechstein hasn't given up the battle against what she regards as her unfair treatment. She is suing the ISU for 4 million euros ($5.45 million) in damages. A state court in Munich is to rule on the case sometime after the Sochi Games. Pechstein has approached this battle the same way she does it on the ice, with a good portion of perseverance and tenacity.