Cornelius Kersten, the speed skater who has ended Team GB’s long wait

Kersten has a Dutch father but he will be the first Briton since 1992 in the long-track speed skating at the Winter Olympics

“I want to put down the best possible race I can,” says Cornelius Kersten, the first British long-track speed skater to make a Winter Olympics in 30 years. “To get the official word a few days ago was like a weight falling off the shoulders. It’s official now, it’s actually going to happen and it feels amazing. My ambition is now to be there in the best shape of my life.”

The history of British Olympic speed skating is hardly voluminous, one bronze medal being the extent of it. Of late, Elise Christie has helped to burnish the national reputation in the short‑track form, with the Scot winning world and European titles, but the long track – the icy equivalent of a track cycling time trial – has been out of the reach of these temperate isles for a generation.

Kersten qualifies after a number of personal bests in the World Cup series last year and will compete in the 1,000m and 1,500m events. His success comes after years of dedication and development, often without any official funding, and he has grown alongside his partner, the fellow British speed skater Ellia Smeding. They share a passion and a business but also a location, one that in speed skating is worth almost half a second in itself: the Netherlands.

It is speed skating’s pre-eminent nation: there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to Dutch records in the sport. Kersten’s father is Dutch and also a passionate skater, one who completed the Elfstedentocht; a 200km, 11-city race that has not been staged since 1997 because it has not been cold enough. Raised in the Netherlands, Kersten has absorbed that Dutch culture – “People are very into it and they’ve been doing it for centuries and most people think they know best” – and is also part of Heerenveen’s Team Worldstream Corendon, known as the NXTGN and marketed like a team of esport professionals.

Cornelius Kersten competing in the Thialf ice arena in Heerenveen in 2021.
Cornelius Kersten competing in the Thialf ice arena in Heerenveen in 2021. Photograph: Peter de Jong/AP

Yet Kersten says he skates like a Briton. “How me and El go at it is [not to say] we know best but: ‘OK, what can we learn.’” And when he came to the last year of his career as a youth skater, he chose to represent the country of his mother. “I had the option to compete for the Netherlands, but I switched,” he says, citing the influence of Stephen Airey, the man who helped to build the British long-track programme and continues to work as its development manager in a voluntary capacity. “He was the one who gave us the room to grow and I’d always wanted to represent Team GB, so it became a really easy decision to make,” Kersten says.

Smeding shares a similar biography, and the pair have been living together in Heerenveen, round the corner from the Thialf ice arena, and skating for the past three years. That skating has often been at night, however, as during the day they are busy roasting, packaging and shipping coffee beans. Brew ’22 is the name of the couple’s company and it has been a success, generating funds that have allowed them to continue competing, with Kersten otherwise qualifying for only IOC solidarity funding.

Kersten says he would not recommend running a business to any other active athlete. “Coffee is my passion and Brew is our little baby so it’s very easy to put a lot of time and effort into it, but it does sometimes take time and energy when you would rather have a nap in the afternoon.”

Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

His preferred drink is a filter coffee and he would like to convert others to the more subtle flavours of a pour-over brew. But before that he would like to give long-track skating a kickstart in the UK. “I think the sport needs to grow and we need more recognition. I’d like to inspire people to get involved and hopefully get a track in the UK. At the moment we’re a small sport, and I hope the Games will help that.”

Long-track skating is a sport that has finally come in from the cold and, while Kersten is unlikely to return from Beijing with a medal, he makes for an effective ambassador. What, in the end, does he love the most about his discipline? “For me that’s the speed of it. When you throw yourself into a corner at 40mph you’re in control but you’re also slightly out of control, too. One wrong move and you’re out, you’re flying into the cushions. But if you hit it right, you absolutely blast through … and that’s amazing.”

• This article was amended on 5 January 2022. The Elfstedentocht was last held in 1997, not 1994 as an earlier version said.


Paul MacInnes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Equipment blamed for Team GB’s dismal skeleton performances
Former Olympic 2014 bronze medallist John Jackson has said the equipment is letting down the British skeleton sliders

Sean Ingle in Beijing and Martin Belam

11, Feb, 2022 @6:00 PM

Article image
Team GB’s Winter Olympic struggles go on with problems for skeleton crew
After more disappointment the ghosts of Winter Olympics pasts are starting to rattle for Britain’s campaign in Beijing

Sean Ingle in Beijing

10, Feb, 2022 @1:28 PM

Article image
Team GB’s Kirsty Muir: ‘When I'm in the air, it feels like I'm flying’
Scottish teenager, who has been described as a ‘once in a generation’ talent, talks to Sean Ingle as she bids for Winter Olympic glory in Beijing

Sean Ingle

28, Jan, 2022 @1:02 PM

Article image
Team GB’s Dave Ryding misses out on slalom medal but signs off with a smile
Dave Ryding ended up with crumbs in his fourth and final Olympics after the Briton’s disappointing 13th-place men’s slalom finish

Sean Ingle at Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre

16, Feb, 2022 @12:59 PM

Article image
Winter Olympics: highs, lows, heroes and villains of Beijing 2022
Our writers pick their best moments, from Alexandra Trusova’s extraordinary rant to Erin Jackson’s groundbreaking gold

Sean Ingle, Bryan Armen Graham and Martin Belam

21, Feb, 2022 @12:05 PM

Article image
Team GB prove a hit with China in the Winter Olympic fashion stakes
Team GB’s Ben Sherman duffle coat and Chelsea boots from the opening ceremony are proving popular

Sean Ingle in Beijing and Vincent Ni

07, Feb, 2022 @10:37 PM

Article image
Ellia Smeding named as 50th and final Team GB athlete for Winter Olympics
The chef de mission, Georgina Harland, hailed an ‘exciting new chapter’ and Team GB is believed to have set a target of three to seven medals in Beijing

Sean Ingle

24, Jan, 2022 @2:17 PM

Article image
Jackson and Meyers Taylor have made history in Beijing for Black Americans
Medals in speed skating and monobob raise hopes that more young athletes of color will thrive in winter sports

Bryan Armen Graham in Beijing

18, Feb, 2022 @5:09 PM

Article image
Winter Olympics funding will not just be guided by medals, says UK sport chair
Katherine Grainger has said grassroots participation will help to determine future funding for Winter Olympic sports as well as medal potential

Tumaini Carayol

21, Feb, 2022 @4:50 PM

Article image
From dodging sheep to the Olympic slopes: Ryding sets sights on gold
The British skier has said he will have a ‘do or die’ mindset going into the slalom as there is pressure is on Team GB who have yet to win a medal at the Winter Olympic Games

Sean Ingle in Beijing

13, Feb, 2022 @10:30 PM