The Dutch national team have kicked off the European championships with two gold and a silver after wins in the men’s and women’s 10k events in Berlin. Sharon van Rouwendaal also took silver in the 5k time trial.
The Dutch came to Berlin off a preparation camp at the BEST Centre in Mallorca and as one of the co-founders of the centre, I had the chance to talk with the team about their preparation and their hopes for the championships. It was no surprise to Marcel Wouda that the open water group, that he coaches, has been winning medals.
Wouda is something of a talisman in Dutch swimming, after becoming the country’s first world champion with victory in the 200IM in Perth in 1998 and finding himself at the front of a lengthy period of success in the pool for his country. Talking before the European, Wouda said, “My expectations are of course to come home with a few medals. I think we have a team capable of doing that in the open water events as well as in the pool events. We saw over the last weeks, especially here in Mallorca that when they start to come down in their volume, we see really, really good times coming out of that, so we’re quite confident going to Berlin.”
The preparation at the elite end is as much mental as physical and much of the work on the camp was focused out of the water. “We’re going to have a week, and some even a week and a half of full racing ahead of them so they need to be fresh, they need to be relaxed, they need to be sharp, so all the work we’ve done here is geared towards those goals. So this means bringing down the volume a bit, increasing the intensity here and there for some good sprint work, some broken races, and it looks like everybody’s ready.
“Even the longer distance swimming, for example the 1500 and the open water, they are also coming down in volume, and if you talk about sprint work for them it’s more that they also need to have speed. For example, an open water swimmer, I always tell them that the races will be won at the finish, races are won within a tenth of a second over 10km, so you need to have that finishing speed. It doesn’t really differ from the sprint work of a 100m or 200m swimmer because sprinting work is defined by the physiological system, so if you make it too long it’s not a sprint anymore. So for them it’s definitely important to not make the sprint distances too long. So what I try to do for an open water swimmer is try to simulate the last 2km or so of the competition, which is pretty much the final of the open water competition. For a 1500m swimmer, I’ll break up the 1500m into fractions with not too much rest, and just go at it.”
Which is exactly what happened at the end of the men’s 10k as Ferry Weertman, 22, who Wouda picked as one of the toughest guys he has ever seen, came through the field in the closing stages to win by just under 3 seconds.
Wouda has seen it all over a long period of time as a swimmer and then a coach, and the biggest difference now is the professionalism of the elite teams. At the BEST Centre, we see many club and national teams and the Dutch were one of the most professional we have had. They were impeccably dressed in team kit at the pool and hotel, polite and respectful to those around them, always had time for photos and autographs for young swimmers, hard working, happy and a credit to their country. Wouda also pointed to the rise of science-based programmes, still coach driven, but which provides a huge driver for large, well-funded programmes at the top end.
From Monday, attention will turn to the pool where the Dutch have two Olympic gold medallists from the dominant women’s 4x1 free team still in action: Inge Dekker and Femke Heemskerk. Dekker will be 29 on the opening day of competition and is in the mood to add to her 44 medals from Olympic, World, and European competition over the last 15 years. “I don’t feel like it has been 15 years already. But I’m happy of course with what I’ve achieved, but I want more. My goals for Berlin are to improve on everything I do and to get right the things I have been training for.”
Looking back at the years of domination Dekker sees a similar pattern ahead of Rio, “We had a lot of success with the girls with the relay at the Beijing Olympics, and then in Rome at the worlds, there was no other team that went faster than us so it was really great to be on the podium again and again with the same four girls. That was really special. We’re working hard to get that for Rio again, but we aren’t there yet. But we weren’t there two years before Beijing, so we have a little time I guess, but that was an amazing period.”
“When you get older, some things are more difficult and some things are easier. When you get older your body changes, for example you aren’t as flexible anymore and when you train really hard one day, you feel it the next day, you can’t just go on and on and on as you used to do. Other things get easier though, like for me, I really enjoy it more now, like 15 years ago I was just doing it but now I really enjoy it. It gets easier to race finals and just enjoy it.
Heemskerk also has fond memories of her time in Beijing, “When I look back at the period when we were at the top of the world, I remember the time I spent in the call room when we were all nervous but I felt so safe because I knew we had the best team around me. I remember walking out at Beijing and I looked beside me, and you knew you had the best team around you.”
Like Dekker, the focus for Heemskerk is on medals in the 50, 100 and 200 free and the relays. Both athletes relocated to Marseille to train with the elite group under Roman Barnier and James Gibson.
“Marseille was a great experience for me,” said Heemskerk. “The first year I was on fire, I was flying. And I broke all my personal bests. The second year, it was a little bit harder because I failed in the finals of Shanghai. With my semi final time, I could have been World Champion. That was really hard for me because I failed in that final. So I put a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted to be faster in training than I did the year before. I got a little homesick, I was not feeling well. I was so tired, it was not a good combination. I learned a lot and for me it was a great experience. I am still very grateful they took me in the team. It was a special time. Because I felt in 2010 I had to do something else. And i took that feeling and did something with it.”
James Parrack is the co-founder of the BEST Centre, Mallorca, and is Eurosport’s swimming commentator.