The International Swimming Hall of Fame announced that Dutch Olympic 10K Marathon Swimming gold medalist and 25 km world champion Maarten van der Weijden was selected to be inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in the Class of 2017.
Born in Haastrecht, Netherlands in 1981, the towering, gregarious young boy started early taking up the challenge of distance swimming – even completing a set of 100×100 at the age of 11. By the age of 19, he emerged to become a 12-time Dutch national champion at distances between 400 meters in the pool and 5 km in the open water. By 2008, he was standing on top of the Olympic podium in Beijing’s Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park.*
In between, van der Weijden traveled a road wholly unique in the annals of FINA and Olympic history.
In 2001, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia; his chances for survival were very small.
For the next two years, van der Weijden had little control over his life, depending on medical specialists to guide him through painful chemotherapy treatment and a stem cell transplantation. In 2003, he started to train again and somehow qualified for the FINA Open Water World Championships. In 2004, he swam across the Ijsselmeer in 4 hours 20 minutes, breaking the former record by almost 15 minutes to collect €50,000 which he donated for cancer research.
While he was raising money for cancer research, he never let go of his dream to become a world champion as he trained under renowned Dutch coach Marcel Wouda. In 2008, he had a breakout competition in Sevilla, Spain when he not only won the 25 km at the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships in a close race and earned a bronze medal at the 5 km and finished fourth in the 10 km.
His 10 km race qualified him for the first Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. No one excepted gold from the only Olympian who had come back from leukemian, except for himself and his coach. Pundits, at best, labeled him as having an outside shot at a medal, but with a best time in the 1500m nearly one minute slower than David Davies, gold seemed like an unsurmountable goal.
But he sprinted past Davies and Thomas Lurz of Germany to became the first men’s Olympic champion in the 10 km competition.
“There have been many upsets at the Olympics; all have been dramatic, memorable, unexpected and unimagined,” observes Steven Munatones. “But I cannot imagine any upset that is greater or more unexpected than Maarten van der Weijden‘s victory in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.”
Van der Weijden’s back story is truly unique in the annals of Olympic history:
* He had fought back from leukemia, the only known swimming Olympic finalist who was a cancer survivor
* At one point, he had lost nearly half of his body weight during his illness
* He was competing against world champions like Vladimir Dyatchin and Thomas Lurz in the Olympic final
* Davies, the eventual silver medalist, had a 1500m freestyle time nearly 1 minute faster than Van der Weijden’s best time in the pool
* He was willing to publicly share his workouts and strategies with anyone who asked
“Maarten had the pedigree, racing savviness, and self-confidence to pull off an upset victory at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park outside of Beijing. In fact, very importantly in his own mind, a victory would not be an upset, but rather an outcome of his hard work and tactical decisions throughout the race.“
Despite his bout with cancer, Van der Weijden had a lot of positives going for him:
* He elected to wear a blueseventy tech suit that was against the rules of the Dutch team, but its construction at the time was arguably the best materials for an open water swim
* The 10 km race was held in the rain, making the conditions as cool as possible during the humid summer conditions in a rowing basin
* He was confident that he could out-swim anyone in the last 5, 50, or 100 meters in the race; he had trained himself to be the best sprinter of the 25 finalists
* He took the time to be very well-hydrated throughout the race, drinking at every feeding station
* He strategically drafted off the end of the lead pack for over 9 km, conserving his energy for the dramatic finish
And there was one very important thing that Maarten had that no one else could ever imagine. “You can do anything you want after surviving cancer. If you have cancer it is not the end, if you are lucky there is a whole world out there for you still.
Before the Games I fantasized about winning the gold medal, because you have to fantasize 100 times about something before you can win it, I was thinking I would be jumping up and down or screaming, but when it came to it, I just finished and felt amazed.”
Right before the Olympic final, the ambiance of the 10 km marathon swim also very much suited the engaging and garrulous personality of the 2.03 meter Dutch swimmer. American rival Mark Warkentin remembers, “The story of the day starts about 5 minutes before the announcer said ‘Take your mark…’ Unfortunately, athlete family members and other 10 km swimming fans were relegated to seating areas far from the start location and so the 25 athletes stood on the waters edge waiting to get introduced to the members of the media. The excitement of being announced to an Olympic crowd was thus diminished greatly but we were all preoccupied with the task at hand. That task was not the upcoming race, but rather the need to relive ourselves of a full morning of hydration.
Prior to the introductions the athletes had been sequestered in a ready room, then herded to the starting location, and then told to stand at attention in front of the cameras in the media section. The whole process took about 20 minutes and by the time the athletes were finally introduced the only thing we really wanted to do was find the restroom, which of course was not an option. Thus, there was quite a bit of eagerness to get into the water as quickly as possible. At the beginning of the historic race, levity triumphed over tension at the starting dock.”
During the first lap of the four-lap race, Van der Weijden simply settled into this familiar position at the back of the pack. His stroke count appeared to be the slowest of the group.
While others raced through the feeding station and quickly gulped their drinks, Van der Weijden took long, slow swigs from his water bottle to ensure that he remained well-hydrated. While others rushed, he was as calm as an athlete could possibly be, especially as a lot of physicality was occurring in the front and middle of the pack, especially around the turn buoys. He simply avoided the jostling.
Warkentin remembered, “At the start of the second lap I was the unfortunate recipient of an elbow to my shoulder blade that hurt. I don’t know who it was that got me, but I must have made an aggressive retaliation move because I was given a yellow card a few moments later. I was a bit confused about what I had done to get a Yellow Card, but there really isn’t any time to get an explanation from the official. The only thing you can really do is adjust your race strategy accordingly, knowing that a second infraction will result in a disqualification from the race.”
But Van der Weijden continued to trail behind the pack, unperturbed by the referee’s whistles, yellow cards, and physicality in front of him.
World champion Dyatchin took the lead on the third lap as the pace started to increase. The pressure to take the shortest line was concurrently increased. Warkentin explained, “On the third lap, [Dyatchin] and I were battling for position. 25 meters until the turn buoy we were side by side. I had an inside position – which is technically the better position – but the Russian was making it clear that he was going to try and angle me inside the course. His goal was to try and slam me into the buoy instead of going around it cleanly. I knew what he was trying to do and, under normal circumstances without a Yellow Card, I would have held my position. However, holding position would have required a lot of physical contact, and I didn’t want to draw the attention of the race officials. So, I backed down, lost my position, and had to try and scramble to get back into the thick of the pack.”
While his opponents were fighting for position and the lead, Van der Weijden continued to draft with a level of composure that few others possessed.
At the start of the fourth lap, the pace picked up tremendously. The heart rate of the athletes skyrocketed and their smooth technique started to deteriorate a bit. While some of the athletes started to make quick moves, Van der Weijden gradually moved up the pack, picking off one rival at a time. But the 9.5 km mark, he was swimming shoulder-to-shoulder with Warkentin. They both were in a position to medal, although there were still a handful of swimmers ahead of them.
“We fought like crazy from the 7.5 km mark to the 9.5 km mark to [be in the hunt for a medal], but I kept getting tangled with Maarten, Vladimir, and a whole bunch of other swimmers,” recalled Warkentin.
As Dyatchin was red-carded and the others had used up most of their energy, Maarten quickly surged to the front in an attempt to catch the leading David Davis of the UK and Thomas Lurz of Germany.
How composed was Van der Weijden? At a level that was unfathomable to others in the inaugural marathon swim. “Just before the pace picked up at the 7.5 km mark, I was swimming next to Maarten when he smiled at me and made eye contact [through his goggles],” said Warkentin. “It was only a split second of a grin, but it was noticeable, and it made me shake my head and laugh a little. That moment, just before the pain really increased, was one of the highlights of the race.”
Before the race, Van der Weijden had predicted his profound racing strategy in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim: he sat in the pack, patiently bidding his time for the first 8,000 meters, 90 focused minutes of controlled and patient swimming behind a pack of aggressive swimmers. Then, he shifted gears and started to gradually edge up within the lead group, always carefully picking spots where he was able to gain a meter here and another meter there.
Finally, in the last 500 meters he moved into position for a medal, but by all reasonable measures, Van der Weijden seemed way too far behind leader David Davies to win.
With 100 meters to go, the course took a slight angle towards the finish pads and Davies got a bit confused as to the best line, giving Van der Weijden the opening he needed.
Even silver medalist Davies, a rival who also swam the race of his life only to miss out on a gold, was very complimentary of the Dutchman, “He’s a gentleman and a great ambassador for the sport and he’s Olympic champion now.”
Maarten surely struggled through his bout with cancer and he similarly struggled through his 10 km Olympic victory, but he made the most of his challenges and triumphed in both.
After writing his own biography, Beter, in 2009 and a successful career as a finance manager for Unilever, he became an entrepreneur and motivational speaker focusing on health care, sports and business.
In 2015 he initiated his first Swim to Fight Cancer in the cold channel of Den Bosch. It attracted over 500 participants and raised over €500,000 for cancer research. He continues to use swimming to fight cancer, recently swimming 42 km in the 50m Pieter van den Hoogenband Swimming Stadium Eindhoven pool. He has also created a one-man stage show based on his book Beter. All one hundred of his shows have been sold out.
He has also performed on the TEDx stage in Rotterdam.
* The final results 2008 Olympic 10K Marathon Swim:
GOLD – Maarten van der Weijden, 1:51:51.6
SILVER – David Davies, 1:51:53.1 (1.5 seconds behind leader)
BRONZE – Thomas Lurz, 1:51:53.6 (2.0 seconds behind leader)
4 – Valerio Cleri, 1:52:07.5 (15.9 seconds behind leader)
5 – Evgeny Drattsev, 1:52:08.9 (17.3 seconds behind leader)
6 – Petar Stoychev, 1:52:09.1 (17.5 seconds behind leader)
7 – Brian Ryckeman, 1:52:10.7 (19.1 seconds behind leader)
8 – Mark Warkentin, 1:52:13.0 (21.4 seconds behind leader)
9 – Chad Ho, 1:52:13.1 (21.5 seconds behind leader)
10 – Erwin Maldonado, 1:52:13.6 (22.0 seconds behind leader)
11 – Ky Hurst, 1:52:13.7 (22.1 seconds behind leader)
12 – Igor Chervynskiy, 1:52:14.7 (23.1 seconds behind leader)
13 – Francisco José Hervás, 1:52:16.5 (24.9 seconds behind leader)
14 – Allan do Carmo, 1:52:16.6 (25.0 seconds behind leader)
15 – Gilles Rondy, 1:52:16.7 (25.1 seconds behind leader)
16 – Spyridon Gianniotis, 1:52:20.4 (28.8 behind leader)
17 – Rostislav Vitek, 1:52:41.8 (50.2 behind leader)
18 – Luis Escobar, 1:53:47.9 (1:56 behind leader)
19 – Saleh Mohammad, 1:54:37.7 (2:46 behind leader)
20 – Mohamed El Zanaty, 1:55:17.0 (3:25 behind leader)
21 – Damian Blaum, 1:55:48.6 (3:57 behind leader)
22 – Arseniy Lavrentyev, 2:03:39.6 (11:48 behind leader)
23 – Xin Tong, 2:09:13.4 (17:21 behind leader)
24 – Csaba Gercsak, did not finish
25 – Vladimir Dyatchin, disqualified in a time of 1:52:13.7 (22.1 seconds behind leader)
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