Climbing, tennis, gymnastics and running. Until two years ago, these are just some of the sports that Amber Meulenbeld (20, research master Health Sciences at Erasmus MC) used to enjoy. Not at Olympic level, but with enormous passion. Until one morning she woke up with a banging headache. Familiar to many students, but this time it felt different. “The pain didn’t go away, and my vision was distorted.” After many consultations, the student ended up with a neurologist who solved the mystery. “He diagnosed a brain disorder. The disorder was eventually quickly resolved, but I’ve been left with a permanent impairment. My optic nerve doesn’t work anymore.”

Double vision and loss of focus

At a table in the Erasmus MC café, Meulenbeld talks about that period just as easily as she previously discussed the decor of the same café. Even now, she’s still smiling. But the doctor’s diagnosis changed her life for ever. “I only see 20 of the 180 degrees that a normal person sees. And I can’t distinguish much from what I do see. I have blurred distance vision and I see double close up.”

She illustrates her handicap by describing the interviewer, who’s only sitting a metre away. “I can see you, but not where your eyes are. And I see two versions of you, so I don’t know where you’re really sitting. You’re wearing a green jumper.” Despite finding the cause of her symptoms, the neurologist couldn’t answer all of Meulenbeld’s questions. “Why it happened isn’t clear, but the damage is.”

Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik


Instead of bemoaning her fate, she’s trying to make the best of her situation. The first challenge: her studies. As a second-year student at Leiden University College, she would probably have had to take a step back. But Meulenbeld had other ideas. “I finished my studies on time. Obviously, things were easier before, and I used to get higher marks faster, but I got there.”

Then challenge number two: sport. Because as she admits, the sports that she used to do are ‘not really suitable’. “My idea was: choose something that doesn’t need me to use my eyes so much. Somehow, rowing seemed like a good sport. And fun too, because many students do it.” And yes, it’s fun, but in practice rowing with a visual impairment is harder than she expected. “If you’re good at it, you don’t need your eyes very much. But when you’re just starting out, it’s much harder.”

Meulenbeld won’t forget the first time she stepped into the boat, now over a year ago. “That was in the dark. Not such a good idea. But I don’t think I did any worse than other first-time rowers. I didn’t stand out too much in the boat. It was scary, but mainly everything involved in rowing took some getting used to. Getting into the boat, for example. I enjoyed it from the start. The fun and the team spirit.”

Paralympic team

After a few months, she got in touch with the rowing federation to see if they could help with the practical problems. “I can row with able-bodied students, but everything else involved in rowing is much harder for me. Just putting a boat in the water, for example. Or getting into the boat.” But she also needs to make the necessary adaptations in her rowing compared with the other rowers in the club. “It’s important that you all make the same movement at the same time. Some people do this based on their sight, because it’s easy to see what the person in front of you is doing. Because I can’t see that, I have to listen.”

Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Someone from the federation soon called back, but not the person she was expecting. “It was the assistant coach from the Paralympic team. Asking whether I’d like to meet up, because they’d be happy to help me.” After that, the student trained more and more often at the rowing federation training centre in Amsterdam. After several months, the assistant coach asked whether she’d be willing to join in a training session with the Paralympic team. “There isn’t a very large pool of people who are eligible to row in this category, so they’re always looking for people. What did I say? ‘I’d like to, but I’m not very good.'”

Special category

However, she was soon proved wrong. The training sessions went so well that at the end of this summer she was asked to be a permanent member of the Paralympic coxed four team to compete for the medals in Tokyo. Meulenbeld and her fellow team members are in a special category. For example, the teams are mixed in several ways. “We have men and women in the boat, and the team members have both visual and physical impairments. However, in each boat of four, only half the crew may have a visual impairment, otherwise there would be too much of an advantage. I can obviously use my whole body.”

Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

This autumn, the team of six rowers embarked on the ‘Paralympic journey’. Over the coming months, it will be decided who will be used as reserves and which four rowers will compete for qualification for Tokyo. “The first opportunity was during the World Championships at the beginning of September. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage it, although I wasn’t in the boat myself. The next opportunity is at the end of April, which is also the last chance to qualify. That’s where we have to do it. When I think of that moment, it’s quite nerve-wracking. But we’ve got some time to prepare.”

Unexpected passion

The sporting career of para-rower Amber is on the up. To illustrate: while her team members were trying to qualify for Tokyo this summer, the rower was at home because the investigations into whether her handicap is real had not been completed. “People sometimes say that it’s easy to get into a Paralympic team because there aren’t so many competitors. It’s not regarded as a worthy counterpart of normal sport. But I know how much time, effort and energy I put into this sport. You need to be at a high level to take part in international sport. And as an athlete with an impairment, my daily life also takes a lot of energy.”

The coming months are very busy for the rower. Besides her master’s degree at Erasmus MC, she is also doing a master’s degree in Utrecht and she trains nine times a week. “At the moment, it’s all great fun. But when I think of the future, it’ll be hard. If more training sessions are planned or I need to be in Amsterdam, I may have to put my studies on the back burner for a while. But I think that everyone is prepared to make sacrifices for an Olympic medal. I’m looking forward to it. It’s unexpected, but I’ve really found my passion in rowing.”