Since the mid-1990s, several crops of Dutch sumo wrestlers have practiced the Japanese martial art at a high level. Back in 1997, Annemarie Overtoom was one of the pioneers. The Fiscal Economics student, then twenty years of age, won the bronze medal at the first ever European Championships for female sumo wrestlers. In October of that year, EM visited her at a training session to figure out how a 62kg girl was able to compete internationally in sumo wrestling. “What particularly fascinates me about this sport is the speed, the explosiveness,” Overtoom said at the time. “Hesitating for just a split second is fatal in sumo. Just like a mistake. You see, it is impossible to rectify a mistake in sumo. The sport is far too quick for that.” She had made the switch from karate to sumo wrestling, which was a sport on the rise at the time, and had her ambitions all worked out: “I wish to stay ahead of my future rivals and get better than my current rivals. Next year, I want to be Europe’s best wrestler.”

EM has been around for twenty years now. During that period, we have featured many people, who have told us about their special achievements, excellent research and other interesting things. But who were these people who were featured by EM twenty years ago? How do they look back on this period, and how are they doing now?

Overtoom is not the only competitive student sumo wrestler in Erasmus University’s history. EUR medical student Pieter Vroon was one of the Netherlands’ last top wrestlers. He won the European title in 2012. Vroon quit about two years ago, because he could no longer combine wrestling with his foundation programme at the hospital. “Sumo wrestling at a high level is an elite sport. I trained every day, and in the months leading up to the European Championships I’d go abroad two or three times a month to train.”

Vroon travelled to Japan several times to master classical techniques. Just like Overtoom did twenty years ago, Vroon emphasises the speed inherent in the sport. “A sumo bout only lasts a very short time. For that reason, it is incredibly important that you go into it at full speed and not be afraid to do so. I really had to go to Japan to learn that.” Vroon took up sumo wrestling in 2004, having practised judo until then. By that time, Overtoom had already retired. “I only know Annemarie by name. Unfortunately, we never got to wrestle together.”

Pieter Vroon in the ring for a sumo clinic Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Overtoom never managed to win that European title, former national head coach Stephen Gadd tells EM. She died from cancer, which she had battled since 2004, in 2010. A serious knee injury and a job with Unilever caused her to retire from sumo wrestling in 2000, says Gadd, who stayed in touch with Overtoom long after the end of her wrestling career.

Bas Clasener was Overtoom’s training buddy in the late 1990s, and later served as the Dutch sumo wrestlers’ sparring coach. “I remember Annemarie as a person with an enormous personality. She was very sporty and had a cheerful smile,” Clasener tells us. “I have never forgotten the intelligence and humour with which she went about our training drills. You don’t often come across people who combine a degree and a martial art at that level.”