Fire and ice

East German-born Claudia Pechstein was a speed skating sensation – until doping accusations in 2009 caused her fall from grace. Fighting for years to prove her innocence, Pechstein is finally back in the skating game and stronger than ever.

Image for Fire and ice
Illustration by Catherine Franck

She’s the most successful Olympic speed skater of all time, and she managed to clear her name of doping charges. Yet Claudia Pechstein seems to never be done with fighting – on and off the track. We met the Berlinerin behind the ‘ice queen’. 

Claudia Pechstein knows the reasons why, but she still struggles to reconcile the fact that people seem scared when they first meet her, intimidated by her image as an ‘ice queen’ off, as well as on, the speed skating track. “All the time, they say ‘Wow, you are so different from what I’ve read in the press! You are cool, you are fun…’ I just say, ‘Yeah, well, that’s the media.’” Sitting in the “Welli”, the café in the Hohenschönhausen Sportforum, with her blonde, chin-length hair and piercing blue eyes, she could be just any other Berliner. Her accent is noticeable but without the impenetrability that sometimes comes with those who have rarely lived outside the capital, even when she really gets going (which is surprisingly often). Her sentences are punctuated with bird-like laughter, a chirruping directed as often at herself as it is at others. And she is seemingly very happy to talk, going long over time as her sponsors wait to record a couple of radio spots on the other side. It doesn’t seem faked; it doesn’t feel like she is just trotting out platitudes. The impression is overwhelmingly of a woman having fun and at ease with herself.

Yet, an almost pathological moral sense of right and wrong and the unyielding determination to make it prevail against what she disdainfully calls “the system” have lent her the reputation of a stubborn, harsh individual: at 43 years old, Germany’s most successful Winter Olympic athlete is somehow still grasping for the love of a nation that should be hers by right.

That side of her that so rarely comes across in the press – happy, relaxed and absolutely charming – came flooding out during her recollections of the 5000m speed skating final in the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. It was as if she could hear the feverish cheering of the crowd growing wilder again, the stadium announcer’s pitch hitting ever higher notes as he tracked her time, her trainer standing trackside, gesticulating wildly, exhorting her along lap by lap. She wasn’t racing against her opponents or against the clock – she was having fun, taking in the noise, and doing what she loved most of all in this world. Ten million Germans were watching at home on TV, she was moving at a speed of almost 30 miles per hour and she was about to win the gold medal in world record time.

Her powerful short legs stretched and exploded with a graceful, languorous violence beneath her, beating out a perfect rhythm. The world was in the palm of her hand and it didn’t matter a damn what anyone else thought, because she was the fastest woman on Earth and no one could catch up with her to bring her down, to accuse her, to take this away from her. Though they would, soon enough.

Born in February 1972 to a ballet-loving mother in a sporting family in Kaulsdorf, East Berlin, Pechstein loved to dance on the ice, but she wasn’t really cut out for it at the highest level. Those almighty legs could accomplish the hardest and most technical of jumps, but she didn’t have the grace or the artistic temperament to become the next Kati Witt. It was a natural progression for her to slip into the longer-bladed boots made for speed skating.

She was soon training before, after and in the middle of the school day. The GDR’s elite sporting system encouraged and drove her on as it would generations of natural athletes whose future glories the politicians would claim as their own. She burst onto the scene with a gold medal at the Spartakiade, the Eastern European youth championships in Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz) in 1985. “I still remember the time,” she says, bubbling over again as she blurts it excitedly out: “Two minutes, 32.53 seconds.” Sport was her life, and the flashes of neon-lit glamour in the West barely led her to raise an eyebrow. “It didn’t matter to me if a chocolate bar came in a multi-coloured wrapper or a plain one. I never thought about what I didn’t have.” The first time she crossed the newly opened border to West Berlin in 1990, she just wanted to go back home, to her family, her friends, her comforts and her track.

The ice rink at the Sportforum in Hohenschönhausen, a mile or two from where she was born, looms large in the Pechstein mythology. It nurtured her as she learned to skate and it provided solace for her when things would get to their worst. It hasn’t changed hugely over the last 20 years – the stands are of fading plastic seating, its tinny PA is drowned out by the endless whirring of the fans keeping the temperature low enough for the ice – but it is home. She trains there when she can to this day, as she did for all of her five Olympic golds, for the two silvers and bronzes and her staggering haul of 39 World Championship medals. The track was also the site of one of her most meaningful victories, one that still dominates her memory.

“If I hadn’t been suspended, I’d probably just have a normal job now.”

It was 2003, the World Championships, and the stands of the Sportforum were packed to the rafters with her friends and her family, and the city itself willing Pechstein on to gold. But it wouldn’t be so easy because somebody was in the way, somebody called Anni Friesinger. Friesinger and Pechstein had never, apparently, gotten along and their rivalry was the biggest story of the previous year’s Olympics. With her long blonde hair, prominent cleavage and an easy smile, Friesinger was happy to pitch herself as the glamorous antidote to Pechstein; though Pechstein had been the star of the 2002 Olympics and pocketed three huge blue-chip sponsorship deals in the wake of her golds, within a fortnight of coming back from Salt Lake City it was Friesinger who was the talk of the papers, having secured a €1 million gig with Lancia sports cars. The press played it as the Bavarian beauty against the gobby Ossi, a “Zickenkrieg”, a high-speed catfight on the ice. Today, just metres from where the final stage in their captivating duel took place, Pechstein is a bit more guarded with her words than she was in her book (2010’s Von Gold und Blut) when she said she wanted to punch Friesinger in the face.

“The hall was totally full and I hadn’t done so well over the previous couple of days…” Worst of all was that Friesinger already had three gold medals strung around her neck from the 1000m, 1500m and 3000m races. And though Friesinger wasn’t up against her in the final 5000m race, she cast a shadow all over it for Pechstein. She had to have the last word. “It simply had to be me.” She calls Friesinger her “Freundin” using her fingers as quotation marks and, with a twinkle in her eye, adds: “To win in the end there, against her, in my hall was so emotional, so happy, so…”

Pechstein bestrode the speed skating world for another six years before it fell in on her. In 2009, after the World Championships, it was announced that her blood passport was showing too many reticulocytes – a clear sign, as implied by the International Skating Union, that she had been doping with the hormone EPO. She was banned for two years, a span which included the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Her name was sullied, and she received harsh disciplinary measures from the German federal police force (Pechstein had been a member of its sporting sector since age 21). She protested her innocence the entire time and convinced renowned sports scientists to look into her case. For the next six years, Pechstein would be responsible for an open education in the workings of the human body. She would tell the world, and eventually prove beyond doubt, that her spiky reticulocytes were the result of a genetic imbalance inherited from her father.

As with every professional athlete on Earth, her case was heard in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne (CAS) – where the presumption is immediately one of guilt as opposed to innocence. She had never failed a drug test, and had been found guilty on the balance of circumstantial evidence alone. “How can this be?” she thought, and would repeat a thousand and one times over to anyone who would listen. As she sees it, she had no choice but to bring the case to her home country, where she thought she’d have more of a fighting chance. “They had me with my back to the wall.” With all of the righteous indignation and moral certainty which is her touchstone, she took the CAS decision all the way to the courts in Munich to decide whether she had the right to claim for damages under German law. “They thought I wouldn’t go against them, but I said, ‘No. I’ll fight all the way.’ They simply didn’t reckon with me…”

Her refusal to give up almost cost her her sanity and her life. “It was a giant burden for me,” she says. By 2010 she was on the verge of suicide, drained of hope and bereft of any last bit of energy to continue. It was stunning to first read about this bleakest of times for Pechstein. It ran contrary to everything the country had supposed about her before. Somehow, through all the press cuttings and the throwaway lines, almost everyone had completely ignored the possibility that she could be fragile, that she was a normal woman. In a chat with the BBC about the court case, she spoke matter-of-factly about her period of absolute desolation as if it were just another race won, another slight move towards justice. It was just impossible for her to allow us in. To open up, somehow, is not to win.

Somehow she made it out the other side, with the help of a tight-knit circle of family and friends including her manager, Ralf Grengel, and her man, Matthias Große. “Yeah, my partner is at the same time my treasure, my love, my mental trainer and my supporter in every facet of my life. Without him I wouldn’t be here today.”

Despite a court victory in Munich, she’s not done yet, not by a long shot. In the eyes of the sporting world, at least, she has finally been exonerated – in February 2015, she received an unprecedented apology from the German Olympic Committee. But those who decried her, who called her that worst of all things – a cheat! – have yet to pay. “I will have a big party only, firstly, when I’m totally rehabilitated, when the ISU have apologised. Second, when they have paid the damages; third, when they admit their mistake.” She breathes out, at last, almost puffing out her cheeks. “I will continue to fight.”

She laughs at the very idea that she could have had a bit more support had she learned to keep her mouth shut occasionally. “Yeah, sometimes. Well, always, actually. But I think that you go through life better when you speak the truth.”

Pechstein could never play the PR game because she has rarely been interested in what other people think of her, least of all the press. “You must understand that I’m telling the truth when I say I don’t like the media so much. It doesn’t matter to me what they write, but when the letters are printed so big and in such colour…” She talks bitterly of journalists who said one thing and wrote another. “I’m not resentful, but I don’t forget.” Like an elephant. “Genau,” she says, smiling again. Exactly.

Pechstein was doing laps at the Sportforum last month. Nothing special, just a warm up, nice and easy. Only once did she let go and open up into full-pelt speed. Her legs barely seemed to be moving any faster than when she was ambling along. Her face, however, looked different, further away, carved out of stone, her ice blue eyes focused only forward.

At 43, she now finds herself competing against racers half her age, and is aware that if it wasn’t for the accusations she would have skated quickly and quietly into the night a long time ago. “Well, I must say I wouldn’t be in this situation if I wasn’t fucked, sorry” – one of her most endearing features is that she apologises every time she swears, only to do it again immediately afterward – “fucked by the ISU. I would probably not be a sportswoman any more if I had been able to race in Vancouver, if I hadn’t been suspended. I’d probably just have a normal job now.”

But nothing stops Claudia Pechstein’s battle for redemption. She was in Sochi for the 2014 games, coming fourth in the 3000m (“Just to be there was a victory in itself”) and is determined to make up for the Olympics that was stolen from her when she competes in South Korea in 2018. She will do everything to win her damages in court, and with them the right for all sportsmen and women to be presumed innocent in the eyes of the law in the absence of a failed doping test. And she will be damned if she doesn’t make them all regret the day they decided to take on this East Berliner. 

Originally published in issue #136, March 2015