flying dutchman, The
GELDROP, The Netherlands-It’s still 10 months until Sydney 2000, but the battle scene is already set. And the aquatic weaponry awaiting Holland’s Pieter van den Hoogenband in Australia would surely strike fear in the heart of a lesser man.
To one side of the “Flying Dutchman” is the Canberra-trained “Russian Rocket,” Alexander Popov, and his training partner, Michael Klim. To the other side is “The Thorpedo,” Ian Thorpe, and his Aussie teammate, Grant “The Machine” Hackett.
Will any man have a harder task in Sydney? If anything, he has several unenviable choices:
Does the six-time European champion focus on a rematch with a living legend who will defend his Olympic sprint titles a second time with the cold driving force of revenge coursing through his veins?
Does he opt for the 200 meter freestyle, a pincer movement of manmachine and the home boy in Homebush, the big-footed favorite whose physique and technique have propelled him into unchartered waters in the 200 and 400 meter freestyle?
Does he go for broke in all three events-the 50, 100 and 200?
“We’ve not thought about that yet,” said Pieter the Great, back in the temperate comfort of his home in Geldrop outside Eindhoven in the southern part of Holland, far from the madding European Championship media crowds of Istanbul. Here was an opportunity for Hoogie-as he was dubbed by Swimming World in Turkey-to rest for one last weekend before returning to training with Coach Jacco Verhaeren for a steady build-up to the one thing on his mind: Sydney 2000.
Analyzing the Competition
Does he now rate Popov an easier target than Thorpe?
“No, no-it’s one of the last big meets Alex will ever do, maybe, and he desperately wants to win the gold in the 100 free,” said the Dutchman who beat Popov with a 48.47 in Turkey.
“He’s going to work really hard,” added the new champion. “It’s going to be tough. There are a lot of other guys who will be very fast, too.”
Of Thorpe, he says: “He’s an amazing swimmer-the biggest talent I’ve ever seen.. big feet, yeah, but there’s the technique also. I think I can go a 1:46, but he is really amazing.”
Then, so, too, is van den Hoogenband, 21, a medical student from Maastricht, a town standing at the dizzying height-by Dutch standards-of some 230 feet above sea level, located at the southern tip of Holland on the Belgian border about 70 miles east of Brussels. His performances at the European Championships must go down as among the finest in the sport’s history-he became the first Dutchman to win a European freestyle title since 1962, and he now ranks alongside Michael Gross and Franziska van Almsick with six titles to their credit at one European championship.
Perhaps his most impressive victory in Istanbul came in the 100 free where he clocked 48.47-faster than Popov or Matt Biondi had ever swum in pursuit of a major championship title, albeit 26-hundredths shy of Popov’s world record and 5-hundredths shy of Biondi at his best during the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1988.
Pieter’s 22.06 win in the 50 was the second-fastest championship win ever, while his 200 title (1:47.09) was the sixth fastest-but that was from a man saturated by racing and competing in windy, hot outdoor conditions that cannot be compared to the comparative luxury of the Sydney 2000 pool enjoyed by those swimmers at the Pan Pacs.
A hint of how fast Pieter can go came from his relay splits of 47.20 and 1:45.20-the fastest ever.
A Warm, yet Hectic Homecoming
Little wonder that half the town turned out to greet the new national treasure’s return from Istanbul in a homecoming heavy with a sense of relief-the champion had stayed in Turkey on vacation with his girlfriend, former swimmer Minouche Smit, and the couple was there when the earthquake that killed tens of thousands had struck. Fortunately, Pieter and Minouche were not hurt. The couple were at a coastal resort away from the distaster zone when the quake struck along the Anatolian fault.
But the scale of the catastrophe made the champion’s return home all the more hectic than it was already destined to be. “It was pretty busy-with interviews, TV performances. I did a phone-in program about Turkey and what happened there. It was interesting. I enjoyed it.”
Pieter, a likeable man whose polite and easy manners compare with those of the popular Popov, was paraded through the streets of Eindhoven on his way to a civic reception at the town hall. It was a dream come true for a talent who describes his boyhood persona as that of a “dreamer,” albeit one with a strong sense of self-discipline and a healthy work ethic-a sort of cross between the extremes of Popov and Gary Hall, Jr.
Could Pieter identify himself as the man in the middle? “Yes, that’s me.”
The remark is not flippant. His respect for rivals is praiseworthy and doubtless useful to the competitor in Pieter. It comes across most forcibly when he speaks of Popov: “I have great respect for the swimmer who is Alexander Popov. He is a phenomenon. Not to be beaten over 100 meters in eight years is pretty special. And he’s a nice person.
“But if you win for such a long period, that means there have been lots of meets and races, so the chances increase that someone will beat you. In Istanbul, I saw it. It was my big chance. He was in the next lane in the 100, but I thought, Well, it’s my big day.’ I took it. I knew I could be the best. I (had) trained really hard-and I finally reached the top level.”
An Unlikely Hero
He speaks matter-of-factly. He is confident, but not cocky. There are no shades of arrogance in this intelligent man. Indeed, in some ways he is an unlikely hero at first glance. For starters, there’s his sunken chest as well as the slightness of this lanky swimmer. Yet Pieter appears to take a leaf from the book of Edith Piaf, the French singer who said that if you exploit your weaknesses, you’ll be a star.
Of the chest, Pieter jokes that when he undertook underwater stroke analysis tests, it was shown that the indent in his rib cage acts “like a spoiler on a racing car.” His apparent lack of power is deceptive. At 21, he has started to fill out, his chest a little bigger than it has been, his arm muscles a little more defined, but the key is his power-to-weight ratio.
He was the lightest swimmer in all of his freestyle finals in Istanbul. At 168 pounds, he carried 30 pounds less through the water than Popov, for example. The lightness translates into a fast stroke turnover and high position in the water, one that gives the impression that the Dutchman is skimming along the surface with minimal effort. His 100 meters race was not a perfect swim, but it seemed to come close.
Pieter’s prospects had already attracted three sponsorsSpeedo, Phillips and Exxon-before Istanbul, though the deals amount to less that $120,000 of support a year. Bigger offers are now flooding in, but the star is prepared to bide his time in anticipation of greater rewards to come after his job in Sydney is done: “There’s been a lot of interest, but three sponsors is enough for now. I have my training and medical studies, so it doesn’t leave much spare time.
“I would consider it if one very big contract came along, of course, but I’m happy with what I’ve got. I have a good relationship with the sponsors. They know I have to train hard and study medicine. They took a risk three years ago, taking a chance on a talent, but someone who was not a big star and had not won a medal at the senior level. It’s good to be able to give something back for them. Now, everyone knows me, and I’m a sort of idol for the youngsters.”
Pieter’s own swimming career started early. He learned to swim at 4, partly because his parents recognized the benefits of teaching children to swim for safety and for social reasons, but also because of the sport’s history within the family. His father, Cees Reyn, played water polo and is the team doctor to one of the world’s great soccer clubs, PSV Eindhoven, while his mother, as Astrid Verver, was a European junior silver medalist in the 800 free in 1971 and had finaled in distance freestyle races for Holland as a senior.
Sport has been a way of life, but Pieter has not felt overwhelmed by it: “It’s a big family-the house is always busy with people, there are always friends around. We like to socialize, so there’s much more than only sport. I had a great childhood.”
Actually, Pieter admits that he did not like swimming that much at first. “I played soccer, field hockey and judo, but by the time I was 9, they noticed I was very talented in swimming. I wanted to be a team player, but I was better in the water, and I started to enjoy going to the swimming club with friends. It was a good social life, and that fun side of things was really important because I had to train harder each year.
“I kept a book of all the records of 9-, 10- and 11-yearold boys in my bedroom. I wanted to be the best at every age. There were a lot of talented swimmers, but they stopped because of the pressure of the sport. But I enjoyed it”especially the winning.
A pivotal moment in his maturing came at the age of 15, when he won two golds and a silver medal at the European “Youth Olympics” competition in his hometown of Eindhoven. Three titles followed at the European Junior Championships a year later.
Pieter’s ambition burned ever brighter: “I was thinking, ‘ can do this, I’m good at this.’ I can go right to the top.” Expectations were high, but at the 1995 European Championships in Vienna, Pieter missed a medal in the 100 free by 9-hundredths of a second, and he was 1.22 seconds behind Popov. The experience merely made him all the more determined to climb what seemed to be an insurmountable mountain.
It proved to be too high of a mountain in Atlanta, but it was by the most frustrating of margins. Pieter explained: “By the Olympics in ’96, I was in top form, but I came home with two fourth-place finishes (100 and 200). Some people said before the Olympics that I would be the new champion, but I discovered that it is easy to say, but it is not so easy to do.
“There are lots of talented swimmers, but you have to work so hard to make the difference. After Atlanta, I thought, ‘I have to wait another four years for another chance of winning a medal–Oh, my God!’ I thought about the fact that I had never won a medal at a big championships, and I asked myself, ‘Can I do it?’
Dealing with Disappointment
It is at such times that sportsmen and sportswomen-the frustrations of “so near, so far” running through their minds-have on occasion been tempted to take the pharmacological route to the fast lane. Not so for Pieter, a medical student wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps and looking forward to take the Hippocratic oath of the medical profession.
Cees Reyn made his views on the subject of drugs in sport clear to his son from an early age. “My father told me that if I’m taking drugs, then he’ll break my legs,” said Pieter. The laugh that followed had a sense of nervousness about it. His father had clearly meant what he said-and with good reason, as far as Pieter is concerned: “It’s really sad. If someone breaks a world record, there’s always questions. I saw a survey where a number of athletes were asked if they would take drugs if it meant they could do better. So many said they would. It’s pretty scary because they know they won’t live as long a life if they do take drugs. It’s not worth it.”
Pieter dealt differently with his own disappointment of two fourthplace finishes. With that psychological weight at the back of his mind, he took a break from the water, enjoyed a full social life and concentrated on his studies. He returned “fresh and newly motivated” in time to compete at the 1997 European Championships in Seville, but not in time to make that event a healthy experience.
“It was a disaster,” he said. “I started swimming again eight weeks before Seville. It wasn’t so good….” Pieter slipped way down the world rankings in the 50 and 100 free, but it was a measure of the man and his talent that he managed to clock a 1:48.59 in the 200. His lack of races that year, however, was apparent in the final, and he came away without a medal and the knowledge that the title had gone to Britain’s Paul Palmer in a slower time than his heat’s performance.
Instead of returning to Geldrop downhearted, Pieter looked on the positive side: if he could perform to that standard after just eight weeks of training, then there was surely much more to come. And, indeed, it did come, at the World Championships in Perth with a bronze medal in the 200 free, behind Michael Klim and Massi Rosolino.
The Dutchman’s time was fractionally slower than his qualification time from Seville, but the big difference was that it had come in the final. Pieter had confirmed himself capable of racing once again.
Plan for Success
“I’d made it to the podium at a big championships at last, but now I wanted to be No 1. I worked even harder. My coach really helps to motivate me in that way and by setting up fun programs so I don’t get too bored.”
That low-boredom plan now includes two training camps Down Under in the coming year, both to the Gold Coast north of Sydney and a suspension of his medical studies.
“I love the sports culture in Australia, the weather, the way of life,” said van den Hoogenband, whose progress is being closely monitored by the likes of Don Talbot, the head of Australian swimming. In Istanbul, Talbot said, “Thorpe and Hackett will be going out fast, that’s for sure. They (European swimmers) know they’ve got to get out there with `em. It’s tough, but it’s the only way. Pieter can do that.”
If, indeed, he “does that” Down Under next year, Pieter would be the first Dutchman to win an Olympic swimming title, though his countrywomen have stood on the most prized podium in Olympic sport nine times, most recently in 1984, when Jolanda de Rover and Petra van Staveren won the 200 backstroke and 100 breaststroke titles, respectively.
But gold is not all that glitters in Pieter’s eyes: “I just want to win a medal in Sydney. That is hard enough. It will be tough, but it’s going to be really exciting in Sydney. I think about it all the time.”
Craig Lord of The London Times is Swimming World’s European correspondent.
Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Nov 1999
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