The Dutch rowers go ‘more promising than ever’ to the Olympic Games in Tokyo

They radiate a serene calm, the Dutch men of the quadruple, as they split at full speed through the wrinkled Lake Varese. Their rhythm of movement is lethargic, but oh so efficient – the blades of their oars move powerfully through the water, then leisurely move forward again. Four over-the-top guys weighing more than ninety kilos – Dirk Uittenbogaard, Koen Metsemakers, Abe Wiersma and Tone Wieten – give the boat they are in each time a whip forward at the right time. It is like a whip top that falls over irrevocably if the timing is wrong. Rowing is not all about pounding, it also involves finesse and timing.

From the quay, at the local Societa Canottieri, they appear Friday and Saturday, in the series and semi-finals, without effort to float over the surface of the water in a synchronous cadence approaching perfection. The European Championships in Varese are the first competition since October 2020, when the double four became European champion in Poland. The British were not there at the time, because of the corona virus.

A year earlier they had also won the world title. The Dutch scull boat – rowing with two oars – has been at the top of the world for two years and will be the big favorite for Olympic gold in more than three months. “It’s the best boat we’ve ever had,” said head coach Mark Emke Saturday afternoon, the day before the final. The result of a major turnaround in Dutch male rowing, in which available resources have been used more intelligently, and the emphasis has shifted to multiple numbers.

Since the success of the Holland Eight at the Atlanta Games in 1996, the Netherlands has often stared blindly at that flagship, as the most prestigious part in the sport – it also looks the most powerful, with eight super-strong men who can defeat themselves in less than six minutes. pull apart completely.

But because all the attention went to the drill rowing, the sculling was pushed to the background and the results on those numbers were not forthcoming. It was no different in the run-up to the Rio Games five years ago. The harvest was meager: only the Holland Eight won a bronze medal.

A low point followed at the 2018 World Rowing Championships. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the men won zero medals. But in the background, national coach Eelco Meenhorst was already working on a new plan to set up scullen again. “If you put everything on the Acht and it goes wrong, you will be left empty-handed,” he says. “I thought years ago: you can also get two winning fours out of an eight.”

Radical culture change

According to Meenhorst, a radical cultural change was needed to change a sport that relied on the same principles for a long time. Stubborn thinking patterns and prevailing mores had to be renounced. “Rowers are smart people, they know what’s good for them. As they get better, their relationship with the coach changes. They’re going to bend things to their will. That culture was too open. With the recruitment of more specialist expertise, there is still room for dialogue, but we make choices based on substantive arguments. The dynamics have changed, the division of roles is clear: I set out the lines and the rowers respect that. It sounds ruthless and it is. We are not baking sweet buns. ”

At the same time as this cultural change, exercise physiologist Jabik Bastiaans was able to set to work. Since its arrival in 2018, the Dutch scull boats have started to perform a lot better. This has also been noticed beyond national borders. Meenhorst: „The Germans had recently approached someone from a Dutch rowing blade to find out things for them. I read the result with a smile. They really have no idea why we are so good. ”

He also does not want to give details about it. That would only make the competition wiser. “And I don’t think that’s fair to the boys.” What he can say is that the rowing establishment of yesteryear would have laughed at him if they had seen the current training schedule. They thought he was crazy. “We started rowing a lot more, looked for the extremes and magnified them. In the first year, rowers often came to me during a tough week of training and asked if they could take it easier. What do you think, I would say. Even my fellow coaches sometimes wondered if we were not going a bit too far. But the rowers had expressed their confidence in me. I had them commitment. So I was able to continue. ”

The year 2018 was tough for the male rowers. At the end of a tough week of training, they sometimes had to do a long-distance race against each other in a single scull and a two-kilometer test on the ergometer in the same week. The scope of the training has increased enormously, but the intensity is often low. To give you an idea: the Holland Acht, in Tokyo also a medal candidate, sometimes does sessions of 40 kilometers on the IJmeer near Almere-Pampus.

Meanwhile, the rowers are so hardened and so resilient through strength training that they have been able to embrace the Spartan approach, says Meenhorst. They have also seen it work. The group no longer needs to be encouraged. Training hard and being guided by people who have learned for it has become part of the culture. “But that does not mean that we are going to grab gold in July,” he says on Saturday.

This becomes apparent a day later, when the Dutch doubles four loses a title fight for the first time in more than two years – Italy is stronger. “Many boys had aches and pains in the last three weeks,” says Dirk Uittenbogaard, still a rower in the Holland Eight at the Rio Games. His team is very disappointed. “As a result, we had to use substitutes. That causes unrest and does not help in your preparation. ” It is too early to conclude that the injuries were caused by the enormous training volume, he says. But this must be discussed. “We are always at our limit. Maybe we just got over that now. But I think everyone is going to come out of this especially exasperated. This is a great wake-up call. ”

The four without became European champion in Italy on the wrinkled waters of Lake Varese.
Photo Merijn Soeters

The women have also been betting on different numbers for a few years now, and no longer only on the Acht. “That boat cannibalized the rest,” says women’s coach Josy Verdonkschot on Saturday. “In 2014 we chose to prioritize sculling. That has matured in recent years, allowing us to transfer talents to drill rowing. We have actually developed our rowers more widely; no more specialists on one number, but training together. At the 2019 World Cup we were on the podium system-wide: in sculling, drilling and in the light class. The next step is to broaden that group and develop an Eight from there. It should be in Paris 2024. ”


Verdonkschot wants to move to a system that constantly ‘refreshes’ itself. Young rowers who are broadly trained are versatile. In this way, the association hopes to increase the chances of success for women as well. Verdonkschot wants to compete for the medals on four numbers in Tokyo, instead of one on the most prestigious number. The disadvantage of Verdonkschot’s approach is that rowers often, even in the run-up to the Games, do not know where they stand for a long time and that a continuous selection process takes place.

Since Ymkje Clevering (25) was included in what she called “the pool van Josy ”, she became world champion under 23 in the four without and she was in the Eight for a while, only to be selected for the four without. “After we won silver at the World Cup in 2019, the boat was reopened to the group. Our coach sometimes thinks that all those selections keep us sharp. That’s right, but it also creates extra tension. ” Her teammate Veronique Meester agrees: „That makes you walk on your toes every training session. You always have to do ergometer tests and row against each other. You keep asking yourself: are you good enough? That’s not always fun. ” Clevering, the day before the final, where the Netherlands is the first to qualify: “You could consider doing that differently.”

Due to the postponement of the Olympic Games, Verdonkschot had completed the composition of the four without much earlier than normal. “That gave peace,” says Master. “If a training goes a little less, then it is okay.” Clevering: “It’s much more fun this way.”

But Verdonkschot’s shuffling is paying off. On Sunday, both the women of the doubles and those of the four without a mate will become European champions. The latter boat did so for the third year in a row. Moreover, after an absence of 24 years, that number is back at the Games next summer, at the expense of the light four without among the men. The IOC decided to do so with a view to gender equality. The four without is one of the row association’s priority boats. And it did not disappoint in Varese. “This group is stronger than ever,” says Verdonkschot. The results at this European Championship don’t mean much to him. It’s about the games in Tokyo.

Mark Emke, his male counterpart, had similar words: “We have never had so much potential, towards the Games.”

The Dutch rowers go ‘more promising than ever’ to the Olympic Games in Tokyo
Source link The Dutch rowers go ‘more promising than ever’ to the Olympic Games in Tokyo

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