‘Here’ and ‘there’. Two words that keep popping up when rower Marieke Keijser (22) talks with us about her Olympic year. ‘Here’ is Amsterdam, the city where she has been living since the beginning of last year – and where she trains six days a week in and around the Olympic Training Centre of the Royal Dutch Rowing Union (KNRB) at the Amsterdamse Bos. ‘There’ is Rotterdam: the city that she heads off to as soon as possible on Saturday afternoons after training and where virtually all her family and friends still live. “I moved here January last year – 18 months before the Games,” says Keijser as we talk in the centre’s study room. “Over the winter, it’s still relatively easy to train on your own. But in the run-up to the head race season, you train here most of the time – and you do more rowing with your partner too.”

Nevertheless, living in the Dutch capital still takes some getting used to. Because there’s a reason why Keijser distinguishes between ‘here’ and ‘there’. When we ask whether she likes her new home, we get a big grin in response: “I really miss Rotterdam. Amsterdam is definitely a nice place to live – it’s just that I like Rotterdam so much. And it’s so busy here. I used to think I was exaggerating. But I’ve been living here for a year now, so I feel I’m allowed to say I’m trying. And it’s working out, but it doesn’t feel the same. I’m still the odd one out.”

Marieke Keijser foto Ronald van den Herik (10)
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Worth fighting

Still: all things considered, she doesn’t regret her move for a moment. Because Keijser has a very clear idea of what she’s doing it for: gold in the lightweight double sculls at the upcoming Olympics. Together with Ilse Paulis, who won the same competition four years ago with a different rowing mate, she plans to make this dream reality in Tokyo. “Yes, ultimately I think I can only settle for gold. But my coach put it nicely once: ‘We’re going for gold, but every Olympic medal is worth fighting for.’ That needs to be my flow this year, but everyone wants to end first. And I’ve already won quite a few other titles, so I’d really like to get the gold this time. I want to feel satisfied when I cross the finishing line. And to be honest: this does depend to a large extent on the colour of the medal,” she says with a smile.

Looking at the rower’s tally, she must have had quite a few satisfied finishes already. She has not only taken home silver and bronze at the World Championships with Paulis; she has also earned two world championships by herself. Before climbing into a scull with the Olympic champion in early 2017, she spent years rowing solo at championship level. Competing in a different boat class took some getting used to. “It’s not more or less enjoyable than what I used to do – it’s different more than anything. It’s a team sport. You use the same sculling technique, but that’s where the similarities end. For example, it’s difficult not to put or take something personally when the two of you are working together in a boat. That was really difficult for me those first six months.”

The Semi-final of Death

By now Keijser has fully adapted to her new circumstances. The most tangible proof of the progress she has made – in addition to the two world championships the duo already have under their belts – is a ticket to the Summer Olympics. “I remember it clear as day. Usually when you’re rowing, you’re working towards a place in the finals. But during the last World Championships, everyone who made the top 3 during the semi-finals would have a ticket waiting for them. You could feel the tension all over the hotel. Normally speaking, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife before the finals. This time round, it was as early as the semis.” The Semi-final of Death is how Keijser refers to it. “It felt so tense – all I could think of was, ‘I need to do my own thing’. After a semi like that, the wave of relief that washes over you is really weird. I can remember feeling incredibly happy. Everyone says: ‘the Games this; the Games that’. And you train really hard to get there. But from that point on, I could tell people: ‘I’ll be rowing in the Olympics’. Which felt quite bizarre.”

But of course, it didn’t take long for that feeling to subside. Because not only will Keizer and her rowing mate be asking a lot from themselves in Tokyo; their past achievements mean that they have to deal with sky-high expectations from others. “We’re definitely in the public eye as a crew. And of course Ilse has already won an Olympic championship. So if we don’t win, we’ll have automatically lost in many people’s eyes. And if we do win, we’ll have realised our goals. So I think we have to keep things simple for ourselves: go for gold so we don’t have to deal with a lot of nonsense afterwards.”

Marieke Keijser foto Ronald van den Herik (2)
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Interestingly, there’s still a small chance that Keijser will see her Olympic dream scuttled. Because the ticket won by the crew is actually assigned to the boat rather than the rowers themselves. Their names have not yet been entered on the Olympic roster. “It’s only when you’ve rowed out to the starting line that you’re truly sure of competing. We’ll be taking the current reserve crew to Spain to train together. But the national coach has assured us: ‘I’ll tell you in time if I want to change things around’. So I may not have 100% certainty, but if I keep my head on straight I know I can come a long way. And I shouldn’t be more modest than I have to be. While it’s true that I used to row on my own, back then I had to prove myself every time round too.”

100,000 hours of training

And for the time being, whether or not she’s guaranteed a ticket doesn’t make much of a difference for her schedule. Over the next few months, Keijser’s focus will be squarely in Tokyo. The road to the Games may still be long, but the rower has already charted each step of her journey. “I have every aspect of my schedule in the months ahead in my inbox, and it doesn’t include much room for surprises. Since mid-January it has basically been ‘training abroad, home for a week, training abroad, home for a week’.” On the one hand she likes that kind of clarity, but she can also find it unsettling. “It was particularly heavy to see just how few nights we’ll be sleeping in our own beds this year. But on the other hand it is nice to know: ‘This is the deal’. Everything has been thought out.”

Keijser’s busy schedule means that for some time now, she hasn’t had any opportunity to study. After moving to Amsterdam and almost simultaneously passing the first year of her Health Policy Management degree programme, she has regretfully been forced to put her studies on hold for the time being. “Sure, as a student it can be tough when you both have to put in 100,000 hours of training and sit exams. But now that I’ve put it on the back burner for a while, I often think: everyone’s making something of themselves, and all I do is move around from one place to the other. Which makes me feel as if my life is on hold, and I’m no longer a full member of society. That can feel very oppressive. So I actually rather look forward to starting again.”

Marieke Keijser foto Ronald van den Herik (11)
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Not surprisingly, the first weeks of September are marked with a big red circle in her calendar. That’s when she’ll be starting on the second year of her programme – whatever the outcome in Japan. Although she’d definitely like to start it with a gold medal around her neck. “Yes, I’m really looking forward to what this year will bring, but I’m also happy when a cycle like this has run its course. I tremendously enjoy rowing and I’d like to keep doing it forever. But it’s incredibly intense too at this level – I don’t know if I could take another decade. I’ll keep going for as long as I enjoy it. But after the Games, I may want to spend a year recharging in Rotterdam. Or two perhaps.”