By Hiro Yoshida
Sometimes fairy tales do happen. Ten years ago, today, the stage for one of skating’s greatest Happily Ever Afters was the bitterly cold PostFinance Arena at the European Figure Skating Championships in Bern, Switzerland and Sarah Meier was our Cinderella.
It is important to say that Meier, who now goes by her married name of van Berkel, would have gone down in history as one of the most successful Swiss skaters of all time even if she had not won the 2011 European Championships. In 2000, she bagged the bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany and the following season she finished fifth at the European Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia. Her star seemed to be on the rise, but for the next three seasons she struggled with injuries and disappointing results at the big competitions.
The turning point in her career came at the 2006 European Championships in Lyon, France where she came fourth.
“It brought a lot of confidence because I was fifth in 2001,” she said. “Maybe it came a bit early then and as a surprise. As a teenager, I thought it will probably go on like this, but then I realised no. I had a few years where I didn’t really progress results-wise, in the jumps and also the whole performance. I got maybe a little bit stuck, but then I knew I had the potential to go where I thought I could go already a few years before.
“I realised my training was going in the right direction because I think as an athlete you’re always questioning if you are doing the right things. I was questioning myself – should I maybe go abroad for training? Should I change coaches? Should I do this and that? I think that was kind of the answer to all of those questions.”
Following those Europeans, Meier went to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy finishing eighth and one month later she placed sixth at the 2006 World Championships which ended up as her career best at that competition.
Even better was to come over the course of the next season. Meier won her first and only Grand Prix title at the 2006 Cup of Russia (now known as Rostelecom Cup) in Moscow and qualified for the Grand Prix Final in Saint Petersburg, Russia where she took the bronze medal behind Yuna Kim and Mao Asada. Just over a month later, she finally graced the European podium at the championships in Warsaw, Poland where she captured a silver medal.
While the 2007-2008 season was not as stellar as the previous one, Meier still managed a second place at the 2007 NHK Trophy in Sendai, Japan, repeated her silver medal performance at the European Championships in Zagreb, Croatia and matched her best result at the World Championships by finishing sixth in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2008. The next few years would prove to be a struggle.
“That was my peak,” she said. “I think after I just tried to find a good ending as I had many injuries and couldn’t progress anymore.”
Bern Out Or Fade Away
The twelve months prior to the 2011 European Championships were tough for Meier. She came 15th at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada and did not even qualify for the free skating at the 2010 World Championships in Turin, Italy after a nasty fall on a triple Lutz in the short programme. It was a devastating experience for her, but she knew she did not want to call time on her career in that way.
“I said, ‘I cannot really stop like this. I need to do one more good competition’.”
After a solid summer of training, Meier participated in the Japan Open in early October 2010 as a member of Team Europe. Before competing at the event, she had thought it might be her last competition. However, after she skated, she decided otherwise.
“It was so cool, and I had a lot of fun,” she said. “I wanted to continue, and we took it step by step.”
Later that same month, misfortune struck at Skate Canada in Kingston, Ontario. During practice, she damaged ligaments in her left foot which forced her to withdraw before the competition began. She considered retirement again but decided to give it one last shot for Bern.
“I wanted to compete at Europeans no matter how bad I felt because I wanted to have just one last fight on the ice and not just give in,” Meier explained. “I didn’t want to have to wonder the rest of my life ‘Maybe I could have done this or that. Could I have tried harder?’ That was my motivation just to have a good ending.”
Great Self Expectations
Although Meier was the Swiss skater with the highest profile going into the 2011 European Championships, not much was expected of her at all given her battles with injuries over the previous seasons. The only hope she had was to give a performance that she could be proud of to call her final one.
“For me it was just important to have a good last competition,” she said. “I really felt the pressure, but not from other people because they didn’t really expect anything from me.
“The pressure was just from myself because I know that retiring anyway is hard,” she continued. “I knew I had to live with this feeling from this competition for the rest of my life and I couldn’t change it anymore so that’s why I didn’t feel great. I remember I didn’t sleep that whole week more than a few hours a night. I couldn’t really eat anything. I felt really terrible. That was really the pressure I felt – my own pressure.”
As well as her nerves, Meier and the other skaters had to contend with another foe in Bern – the cold. Temperatures inside the arena were barely above zero degrees Celsius for the entirety of the championships.
“It was terrible, but we knew already that it was going to be cold,” Meier recalled. “I told some competitors before it was going to be cold so that they were prepared. Everyone thought during the competition it would be better, but it was not. In training, I could never do my best when it was so cold, but when you need it to the body is able to handle more than you think.”
Meier got off to a respectable start in the short programme where she skated cleanly to “Samba Para Una Sola Nota” by Michel Legrand to put her herself in third place overnight behind Kiira Korpi of Finland and Ksenia Makarova of Russia.
“I didn’t even think about results. I knew that if I could do a performance with which I could be satisfied I will be in the top ten probably. That I was in the medals after the short programme already was a big surprise for me.”
One Last Free
The free skating took place the following afternoon. Meier had drawn to skate last in the final warm-up group knowing that a medal was a real possibility on home ice in the final competition of her career.
“It’s funny because normally I didn’t really think about medals before a performance,” Meier said. “But I just talked to my coach and said if I want to hold on to the third place I am being too cautious and I’m not fighting enough so I need to go for the title.
“But I never thought it would be possible. It was just my mindset. If I want to keep my third place, I need to go for everything and go for gold.”
Meier had to wait anxiously backstage until it was her turn to skate. In the end, the freezing temperatures inside the arena provided some much-needed distraction for her.
“I remember it was so cold I put on an inner layer underneath my costume. After the warm-up, I thought I didn’t feel good with it on. I couldn’t really move so I went to the dressing room and got rid of it, but my coach said, ‘Are you sure because it’s really cold?’ So, I put it on again. Maybe it was good, so I didn’t really think about the performance so much, but I had something to do.”
When Meier stepped out on to the ice for her four-minute free skating routine to Antonio Pinto’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” soundtrack, the noise inside the PostFinance Arena reached a crescendo. However, the entire performance went by in a blur for her and before she knew it she was almost at the end.
“I actually don’t remember anything for the first two, two and a half minutes,” she said. “The first thought I can remember is before the last jump.
“In my final step sequence, I was so excited, but I knew I had to concentrate. The steps and the spins are also important. It was so close that one fall in the step sequence and I wouldn’t have won. I remember that I told myself to contain my excitement.
“I didn’t even hear the crowd I think. I was so into it. I was concentrating so much”.
If it had been loud at the beginning of her programme, the noise was deafening when Meier finished and took her bows clearly overcome with the emotion of the occasion. She stepped off the ice and was greeted by her aunt and long-time coach Eva Fehr.
“I think she also couldn’t say anything because she was so surprised and couldn’t believe what had happened.”
Regaining their composure in the kiss and cry, they waited for Meier’s scores to come up.
“Before the marks came up we were talking because I didn’t know how the others skated. I said to my coach even if I was fourth or fifth I could also be proud.
“In another competition, this programme could have ended up in fourth place and I would have been happy with that but of course what happened next was even better.”
The scores came up. 112.04 and second in the free skating. 170.60 in total and first. It took a few moments to sink in for Meier that she had become a European champion.
“Our excitement was from that we thought I was second,” Meier said. “I remember that I heard ‘first place’ and that was the second surprise because I already thought, “Oh my God, I am second.’ I couldn’t really believe it and I realised I won.”
It is very rare for an athlete to finish their careers at their peak, particularly when there are still other major championships left in the season. Most recently, Javier Fernandez retired in 2019 after winning a seventh consecutive European title. More conventionally, Kristi Yamaguchi at the 1992 World Championships in Oakland, California and Yuka Sato at the 1994 World Championships in Makuhari, Japan both retired after winning World titles at home.
For Meier, there was no temptation to continue a few more months with her competitive career for another shot at Worlds. She was done.
“I would never have been able to redo that programme,” she explained. “I never did it in practice. I had really still a lot of pain in my foot when I did Lutz and flip, so I didn’t even know how I did it there so for me it was clear.
“I had been to so many Worlds and if I could not improve then I didn’t want to compete anymore. For me that was the perfect ending and if I knew I could do that programme like this I would probably have gone to Worlds, but it was really not the case.”
While she would have been thrilled to win a World or an Olympic medal, Meier was realistic about her chances at those global competitions. As with other skaters from Europe, the European Championships also carries prestige for her.
“I was lucky,” she said. “I knew that I had more chances at Europeans. Of course, it would have been a dream to medal at Worlds too, but I knew that it was not in my reach.
“It sounds a bit strange – I love skating, and I feel like it’s my sport, but I didn’t have the body for it. I had so many injuries and I’m really not flexible. I worked so hard on my flexibility for example, but when I would stretch so much I wouldn’t feel good to jump anymore.
“I was always aware that I am a very balanced skater. I could do quite well the jumps, the spins, the presentation, but I didn’t have a big trick if you want to call it that.”
Golden Age Of Swiss Skating
Meier’s competitive career largely coincided with that of fellow Swiss skater Stéphane Lambiel and looking back it could be argued that it was somewhat of a golden age for the sport in Switzerland. She has fond memories of them competing together.
“I will always look up to Stéphane,” she said. “I think he is just born to be on the ice.
“You see it when he moves and how he can entertain a crowd, how he can express the music. It’s like magic when I watch him.
“Of course, we had many funny experiences, sad experiences, happy experiences at competitions since we were little kids. I think it will always be kind of a bond between us because of that.”
Lambiel and Meier also shared a choreographer in Salomé Brunner with whom Meier is in regular contact to this day.
“I loved working with her,” Meier said. “I tried some other choreographers with whom I also had quite good experiences, but when I worked the first time with her I stayed with her because it was such a good collaboration.
“She could also work well with me who had maybe not the same possibilities as Stéphane. “We also still talk and just next week I am going to visit her. She lives in Zurich so it’s not so far away. Sometimes we go for lunch and we talk about skating and everything else.”
And She Lived Happily Ever After
After Bern, Meier appeared in ice shows before hanging up her skates completely in 2015. She also graduated with a degree in journalism and these days writes about sport for Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte.
“I write about all kinds of sports and Swiss athletes that are successful,” she said. “Skiing is very popular, but I also write about the Swiss wrestling guys, tennis or ice skating.
“For the magazine I am working for now, they really care about successful athletes that are known to the public so I can write about Stéphane, Deniss (Vasiljevs) and Alexia (Paganini).”
In 2018 she married Swiss triathlete Jan van Berkel with whom she had a baby boy in January 2020.
“My husband always said he wanted to have a boy named Tim so when we knew it was a boy the decision was clear. But I also liked the name, so we did discuss it together.”
While her career and family life occupy most of her time, she still keeps an eye on developments in the skating world.
“I watch skating and if there are competitions I try to follow them online or on TV. My mom is still a judge and is also involved so we talk about skating. Some of my friends are skating coaches.
“Sometimes I work on the ice with the synchronised skating team of Zurich and help them out.”
When Meier won her European title, the most difficult element she completed was a triple-double jump combination. While she is impressed with the technical progression over the past number of years, she is not sure if it is the right direction for the sport.
“Of course, from an athletic standpoint it is amazing,” she said. “I just don’t know if all the quads are really the future of skating. You can do the quads when you are 12, but then when you are 15 you are already going downhill.”
“I think it can be a goal for someone to win one championship and then go on to university or do something else in life. I have heard statements before like ‘Do it fast and then go on to something else’ and I think there is nothing wrong with that. I just think that most of them are probably not healthy. The body can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to talk about names, but just in general I think it is really sad that we hear about 15-year-olds that struggle with eating disorders, weight problems, and depression because they had too much pressure and they tried to do everything as fast as possible and they are so young.
“Why not do everything a bit more slowly and have a longer career? I would be for that. It must be difficult if you succeed one year and you already have three better younger skaters waiting. You don’t even have time to develop and become a woman or a man.
“You can view it as good or bad, but I didn’t train so much like maybe in other countries and other places. I went to school normally for quite a long time. I think until my first Europeans I trained about one hour a day. I got all the triples with very minimum training. I think I maybe would have been better if I trained more earlier, but then I would have had a shorter career.
“If I would have stopped at 16, my skating was really horrible, and I could only jump. I think I would have missed a lot in my career if I stopped there.
“Of course, it’s a sport and we want to see the big tricks, but I think it’s possible to have both if we go a bit slower. Maybe not five quads, but just one.”
Among the current generation of female skaters, Meier has two clear favourites.
“In terms of presentation, I really love (Alena) Kostornaia and I love Rika (Kihira) because for me she has the whole package. She’s also very tiny, but she seems to have a body that is strong, and she can perform with this body for many more years and she can also do quads. I think it’s the whole package, like also Kostornaia. I like those two the best.”
While Meier had her fair share of injuries and tough times in skating, she can reflect on that magical day in Bern ten years ago and her career with a sense of satisfaction and happiness.
“Life is sometimes hard. Every sport has maybe some negative things. You have some injuries. You have pain. There is some pressure, but when I weigh everything, I really had a fantastic career, a fantastic team with my family, coaches and friends that really supported me. I’m really lucky.
“I think it is always sad when skaters or ex-skaters say, ‘Oh I would never want my kid to go through what I went through.’
“I am really glad I can look back with only happy feelings.”