Sharon van Rouwendaal: Becoming a champion is hard, defending it is harder

Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands winning the gold as she crosses the finish line the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands winning the gold as she crosses the finish line the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

After changing coaches last year and with the chance to create history, the Rio 2016 10km open water swimming gold medallist has an eye on another medal at Tokyo 2020.

Heading into an Olympic Games as the reigning champion is never an easy task.

Not only are there expectations to repeat that feat from four years ago but there is a target on the athlete as the one to beat.

After qualifying for Tokyo 2020 at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships, Sharon van Rouwendaal, who won gold in spectacular style in the women’s 10km open water swim at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, will be that athlete.

“It’s harder because you have people looking at you, you aren’t that rookie that's coming in,” the two-time Olympian told Tokyo 2020. “It's going to be harder because the girls are also faster now. Some girls came from the pool as well.”

Coming into the Games five years ago, while it wasn’t her first experience on the Olympic stage – that was London 2012 – it was her first time in the open water swim. But this time around, the 27-year-old, who is training from her new base in Germany, is an experienced marathon swimmer.

On top of that, van Rouwendaal, along with fellow Dutch athlete Ferry Weertman, who won the men’s event at Rio 2016, have the chance to create history if they can win back-to-back Olympic golds this summer in Tokyo.

Since the introduction of marathon swimming to the Olympic programme at Beijing 2008, no athlete has been able to defend their title.

“I think we're both in a situation that we want to defend [our titles], but it's going to be harder. That's what all the champions say, ‘becoming it is hard, but defending it is harder’,” van Rouwendaal said.

“In the pool, it's really on you how fast you swim. I mean, you can shed times during the year and show that you're in top form, but in open water. I could win a race tomorrow but that doesn't mean I will win in the Olympics because it's also about strategy so it's completely different.”

That race in Rio

Van Rouwendaal was described as a dark horse during the women’s 10km open water race at the Rio 2016 Games.

Well... that's the way the Barrn-born athlete was described by the commentary team.

While van Rouwendaal had dabbled in long-distance swimming growing up in France, a move back to the Netherlands saw her carve the path of being a backstroke specialist, even competing at London 2012 in the 100m and 200m events. However, it was a move back to France a year after the Olympics that saw her move to distance swimming, qualifying for the 2014 European Championships where she won gold in the 10km open water swim.

Coming into the swim in Rio off the back of 19th place finish in the 400m freestyle and electing not to swim the 800m, the 2015 World Championships silver medallist in both the 10km and 400m freestyle, found herself leading the pack alongside defending Olympic champion Eva Risztov during the second of a four-lap course.

The Dutch swimmer broke away after the halfway mark increasing the gap to finish almost 15 seconds ahead of silver medallist Rachele Bruni of Italy. The then 22-year-old became the first Dutch athlete to win a medal in an aquatics event at Rio 2016 and just the third woman in the history of the sport to be crowned Olympic champion.

Van Rouwendaal emerges victorious in 10km Marathon Swimming
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Sharon Van Rouwendaal wins the gold medal for The Netherlands in the women's open water 10km final at Rio 2016.

Reflecting on that moment, van Rouwendaal admitted she hadn’t planned to swim the way it unfolded.

“A year before, if you would ask me, I would have said, ‘I'm going to swim away in Rio and I'm going to kill it’ but I had a really bad year, shoulder injuries and I was feeling really bad,” she said.

However, walking into the water of the famous Copacabana Beach, she forgot about all those doubts and did not feel the stress radiating from other swimmers with many nervous about being on the Olympic stage. With Rio 2016 being her second Games, there was nothing to lose.

At the 6km point van Rouwendaal decided to make a move.

“I felt like this is the moment to go without thinking and I just sprinted but after 200m or something, I was completely dead. I was like, ‘what are you doing? You still have 45 minutes to go’,” she said. “Then I'm just talking to myself to just continue on your arms trying to get the lactic.”

After spending 30 minutes trying to sprint away, with 1,500m left, van Rouwendaal checked to see where she was in relation to everyone else.

“First, I thought I saw them but that was my feet kicking then I checked again and saw that there was a gap and then I was like, ‘okay, then she is not in my wave anymore. She's out on the wing so she doesn't have my stream, she has to swim faster than me to pass me. That's not possible’,” the five-time European gold medallist explained.

“I was so scared that they were there, but actually they weren't. At 400m I checked again to make sure, but I couldn't believe it. I thought I missed something.”

Willing herself to the finish line, surviving off the adrenaline and pushing through the pain of a 10km open water swim, she slapped the white board to declare her victory.

“It was the best feeling.”

Gold medallist Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Gold medallist Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

From swimming open water to an inflatable pool

During lockdowns across the world, athletes who were no longer able to train as they once did came up with creative ways to keep fit.

Whether it was building their own pole vault pit or pool in their backyard or creating challenges using toilet paper, not much could stop Olympians, Paralympians, and hopefuls from finding innovative ways to exercise.

Van Rouwendaal started 2020 by winning a bronze medal at February's FINA Marathon Swim World Series - it would turn out to be the only race of the season. From September the previous year until the race in Doha, the Dutch athlete had been training well and was looking forward to competing.

However, she had to return to her home in France early from a camp when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe and was unable to leave her house unless it was for groceries or running at a specific time during a strict nine-week lockdown.

“You couldn't swim in the ocean, river, I tried to swim everywhere, but it wasn't possible,” said the swimmer, who in a typical week of training, before COVID-19, would cover 90,000km over 10 three-hour sessions.

“I tried to keep myself fit and I was also thinking, ‘I just want to go back and train’. I thought I cannot go anywhere; the police are everywhere.”

Armed with an inflatable pool and a resistance swimming belt, which she would place around a tree or balcony, she hopped in the pool.

“You feel really good when you swim on resistance. I did that for maybe seven times because at some point in March, the water was cold, so people were sending me protection for my pool to get the water warm,” van Rouwendaal remarked.

Throughout her swim in the inflatable pool, which would usually be 45 minutes, she was able to count her strokes to know how far she was swimming. And in that small inflatable pool she managed 3km compared to her usual 16km in one session.

“I think I went in eight times, so twice a week until those nine weeks were over. I did some other workouts at home, but I filmed myself in that pool and got a lot of reactions,” she added.

“I recommend [a] bigger pool because I was touching the ground with my finger.”

A refreshing and positive change

After seven years of working with Philippe Lucas, winning an Olympic gold medal along with multiple World and European titles, it was time for a change.

Van Rouwendaal is currently working with Bernd Berkhahn in Magdeburg, whom she had done some training sessions with the previous season and who was named 2020 Trainer of the Year by the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB).

Originally planning on changing her training after the Tokyo 2020 Games, the decision to move to Germany came after she returned to the pool after the end of the lockdown in France.

“I realised I needed to change practice because it was still the same, still the same exercises. I thought it's a year before the Olympics that I'm changing, maybe it's tricky, but it's for the best. I need a refreshment,” van Rouwendaal explained.

“I wanted to change [my training] after the Olympics in 2020, but I couldn't do it another year in France.”

The Dutch swimmer is excited to be in a new environment that fosters positivity and professionalism from going on training camps, an increase in training sessions, having a weights coach and planning programmes to having lactate levels and VO2 max testing - the latter provides data on how much oxygen is used as during exercise.

“Everybody's helping each other if you need help and the coach is planning everything well. I'm not used to that. You had to do everything yourself and now everything is planned,” she explained.

“It's not just the times that tell you how fast you are or that kind of stuff. And I really like to learn that new stuff and make progress.”

And while there might be questions around her decision to change coaches a year out from Tokyo 2020, there is one thing that is for certain, van Rouwendaal is happy with her decision.

“For me it feels like it's the right choice and I'm doing well. I'm stronger than last year so we will see.”

It's set to be a highly competitive women's 10km marathon swimming when it takes place on 4 August 2021 at Tokyo 2020.