She might go from being a devoted supporter watching matches from the comfort of her sofa to being part of a team cheered on by thousands of orange-clad supporters at the Olympics. Malou Pheninckx, 28, knows better than most that a great deal can change in an elite athlete’s life in the course of four years. Back in 2016, she would encourage her teammates while running laps in Rotterdam. “They would ask me: Why are you actually joining us on this run? Well, to make sure you are properly prepared once you get there! Whenever the going gets tough, I’ll tell you: You’re doing this for Rio.”

If all goes well, this year it will be Pheninckx’s turn to make her debut at the largest sporting event in the world. “Now I’m running those laps to be better prepared myself. Yes, it’s a different vibe. Although it generally feels normal to me, because hockey is such a huge part of my life. But it’s a good thing that people occasionally point out to me that it’s actually kind of special. I was talking about it with my parents just the other day. I never actually expected it to happen, but here I am, with a pretty decent chance of making the Tokyo team.”

Completely done

Despite playing nearly one hundred international matches for the Dutch national team, Pheninckx never seemed a genuine candidate for a spot on the Olympic team until quite recently. The elite athlete took a huge detour towards the Olympics. She first joined the national team in 2012, after the London Olympics. She attended several training camps and played 23 international matches in two years, but failed to make the team contesting the world championships by a hair’s breadth. “After that I dropped out of the national team. Of course I was disappointed at the time. I was also disappointed to miss out on the Olympics two years later. I would have loved to be there. But I left the team well before the Olympics, so I was able to really enjoy watching the games, because a lot of my friends were playing.”

She didn’t quit playing hockey. She combined being a medical student with playing at her club, Kampong. “Once I’d left the national team, I started to put more of an effort into my degree. I was in the foundation programme [internship period – ed.] and I still really enjoyed playing hockey, so that’s what energised me. Playing good games, being the team captain, having great teammates, and being able to combine all that with my studies.” She was very surprised when she received a phone call from the national team’s head coach in late 2016. The Netherlands had disappointingly come second at the Rio Olympics and the federation wanted fresh blood on the team in the run-up to Tokyo. “I didn’t see it coming at all, but I immediately told myself: either I’m going to give this a serious shot or I’m completely done with it. And then, unexpectedly, things actually worked out quite well.”


Malou Pheninckx. Image credit: Jack Parker

A quick glance at Pheninckx’s prize cabinet shows that things did indeed “work out quite well”. Five gold medals – won at two European Championships, one World Championship and two other international tournaments – are evidence that the Dutch women’s hockey team are the odds-on favourite to win the gold in Tokyo. Sinds Pheninckx’s return to the team, the women have won every tournament in which they have competed. “No, I never expected any of this. It all happened very gradually. First the European Championship. That went well, and then we went to Worlds. That went well, too. And now we’re getting ready for the Olympics. People often tell me: you did a brilliant job, fighting your way back onto the team. But it never felt that way to me. At the time, I was happy with the way things had gone, and I never expected to be on a team competing at European or World Championships again, much less the Olympics. But things did turn out that way, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Her return to the national team has caused her to take a temporary break from her degree programme. “At the time I deferred my internships so that I could join the team on a training camp. When I decided to take a serious crack at the European Championships, I made the decision to put my internships on hold altogether.” Due to the success she has had with the national team, Pheninckx has not yet resumed her internships. “It’s impossible to combine an internship with a hockey schedule like this, and to be completely honest, I wouldn’t even want to. Internships are my favourite part of my degree programme, and I don’t want to make a half-arsed effort at them. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to leave the hospital at 4 o’clock because I have to go and train, or where I have to take days off. I’m looking forward to being able to focus completely on my internships in my final year.”

Completing the circle

First, though, she has an Olympic dream that must be made to come true. Pheninckx is not yet a lock to make the Olympic team. “But in the last few years I’ve played in nearly every game. If I stay fit and keep performing as I am at the moment, I think I stand a good chance.” However, she goes on to say that the nerves inherent in the lead-up to such a major event do often make her feel a little less self-confident. “I’m naturally the cautious type. When people tell me, ‘You’re doing well, you’re definitely going to be on the Olympic team’, I will try to lower everyone’s expectations: ‘Yeah, but there are a lot of talented players coming up through the ranks.’ Let’s look at the last few years, though. I was there every time, I made a useful contribution every time, and I’m in good form. So why should I say I don’t stand a chance?”

Obviously, however, there is a chance that she will fall short. “You can’t allow a thought like that to take hold of you, because if you do, you might as well quit. It is a factor, though. Will I remain fit? Will I remain injury-free? Am I playing well? We’re all very evenly matched.” It is because of this ongoing suspense that she will be even more cautious than usual in the next few months. “I never go skiing anyway, but obviously, I’m definitely not doing any skiing right now. But sometimes tiny little things can make a difference, as well. Sometimes I’ll find myself thinking on a Saturday: let’s go and do some shopping. But then I’ll think: no, that’s not a good idea. I’ll be trudging and plodding without aim all day. At the moment, I’m allowing myself to do so every once in a while, but a little while from now, I’ll stop doing it.”

In other words, Pheninckx will do whatever it takes to complete the circle. But if you think she’ll be happy just to make the Olympic team, you have another think coming. Because even though the Olympic ideal is not to win, but simply to take part in the Olympics, she has a clear objective this summer. “Maybe a few years from now I’ll be happy just to have made it to the Olympics, but this summer, I’ll only be satisfied if we take the gold.”

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