Holland has long been known as a top player in women's swimming. The names Hendrika Mastenbroek, Ada Kok, Enith Brigitha, Jolanda de Rover, Annemarie Verstappen, Connie van Bentum, and now, Kirsten Vlieghuis, are proof of a long tradition. Dutch women medalled in the 4x100 freestyle relay at eight Olympics: 1932, 1936, 1948, 1952, 1964, 1980, 1984, 1988. And yet something has turned around in that order of things-for the past two years the land of windmills and wooden shoes has started putting men on the top of the swimming world rankings.
And they are staying there.
It started at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Pieter van den Hoogenband, a skinny 18-year-old with an unmanageable name, announced a promising talent by finishing fourth in both the 100 and 200 freestyles (49.13 and 1:48.36). His teammate Marcel Wouda was also just outside the medals in the 200 and 400 individual medley events. In the 4x200 freestyle relay, the Dutch men placed seventh. And while the post-Olympic year was bad for van den Hoogenband, who had to come down from the high of his Olympic experience, Wouda stroked into the spotlight during the 1997 World Cup, setting two short course world records in 400 IM and challenging van den Hoogenband in the 200 freestyle rankings. Buoyed by his winter performances, Wouda went on to win both medley titles (2:00.77 and 4:15.38) at the European Championships in Seville. The Dutch men were on the upswing, and took silver in the 4x200 freestyle relay, adding a bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay.
At the 1998 World Championships in Perth in January, the team had its best ever performance, and National Team coaches Rene Dekker and Jacco Verhaeren were smiling for days. The electric orange shirts bobbed furiously up and down in the stands when Wouda won the first ever world title for the Dutch men in the 200 IM (2:01.18). He added a silver in the 400 IM (4:15.53). Van den Hoogenband also pulled off his first individual medal at a "big" international competition with a bronze in the 200 freestyle (1:48.65). To top it off, the men's 4x200 relay team took the silver medal behind powerhouse Australia in Perth. Having just warmed down from his 400 IM effort, Wouda anchored in 1:48.06. Says the team's leading female swimmer, Kirsten Vlieghuis, "In Perth everyone swam great and got a medal, or at the very least made a final. The whole team was happy."
So what has given the Dutch men their new pre-eminence?
Verhaeren, who coaches the winning squad in Eindhoven, says, "I think it's just a coincidence that the men have gotten so much better and the women are lagging. It's a question of momentum. The most important is that we've got good quality swimmers practising together. They learn from one another that way. They all do very much the same things. Besides the specific work, they do the same endurance."
At only 29, Verhaeren has a lot on his hands. He coaches 15 swimmers, including Vlieghuis. European record-holder (50 m) Inge de Bruin also shows up to his workouts when she's in Holland. Verhaeren has been able to build and maintain the group since the success of Pieter and Marcel. Of 21 swimmers in Perth, 10 were from his club. "The group is full!" he laughs, then goes on to explain that they work under good conditions. "Our club has good facilities. We have a 50-m pool, access to a physiotherapist, a nutritionist, and a hospital (through van den Hoogenband's father). While the rest of the world may think that is normal, we're the only team in the Netherlands that has those things." Vlieghuis, a double Olympic and world championship bronze medallist in the distance freestyle events, trains together with the men. "The atmosphere in the group is perfect," she says, adding that "the women are good too, but just not at the same level."
The Dutch are also relentless travellers. "We do lots of camps," confirms Verhaeren, adding simply, "You can't train outdoors in Holland." The team does frequent altitude training camps in Spain, and they are also regulars on the World Cup and Mare Nostrum circuits. National Coach Rene Dekker, in Wouda's words "the best thing that happened to Dutch swimming in the last five years in terms of organization and structure," left the position in June to return to teaching physical education. He will be replaced in September by Stefaan Obreno, the coach of Belgian breaststroker Brigitte Becue. Dekker is confident that Stefaan Obreno "will make something out of it," saying that the Dutch team has "a couple of terrific years ahead of them."
Indeed, the momentum is far-reaching, and other promising talents are confirming themselves; Dekker cites Johan Kenkhuis of Vriezenveen, part of the silver-winning relay in Perth, who just won two titles at the European Juniors in Antwerp in July.The 100 free in 49.95 and the 200 free in 1:50.49. "Together with Pieter and Marcel, he's our next fastest man. That relay will win a medal in Sydney," he says.
Also part of the Dutch wave at the 1998 Mare Nostrum were sprinter Mark Veens and breaststroker Benno Kuipers. Says Kuipers of coach Verhaeren, "Jacco's very much a friend." Veens, who did personal best times for the first time since 1996, trains with Verhaeren's group in the evenings only. He says the variety of work with the group is paying off for him. Verhaeren does have an unusually relaxed relationship with his team. He shrugs, "I feel they should make their own decisions." That means a break if the swimmers need it.
Van den Hoogenband and Vlieghuis didn't let up and appeared at the Goodwill Games in July in New York. Helping the All Star team to a victory over the Russians, the 20-year-old van den Hoogenband wowed the crowd with a win in the 200 freestyle. His time of 1:47.34-a personal best-would have won him the world championship title in January. It also puts him seventh on the all-time list. Vlieghuis won the 800 freestyle, and teammate Carla Geurts, who trains in Canada, was third.
Wouda, on the other hand, took time off after the Mare Nostrum to relax in Vancouver before gearing up for the push to the Sydney Olympics.