Wolves and her teammates missed out on direct qualification at the end of last year, and the plan was to qualify last week. Due to the corona pandemic, Wolves was already at home. EM spoke to her twice in recent weeks, before the Olympics were finally postponed.

“It’s annoying, because we were all set to play the deciding match Saturday next week. And now it has suddenly been pushed back twelve weeks.” It’s early March when we meet Iris Wolves (25, Health Law master programme) on a Tuesday afternoon in a coffee shop in Utrecht. She tells us about the bizarre week she has had. Just over a week ago, she was waiting with the other members of the Dutch national water polo team at Schiphol Airport for their flight to Hungary. That’s where they would be playing the final preparation match for the Olympic Qualifiers (OQ).

“Schiphol is where we first heard that the OQ might be cancelled. There were also rumours that the final scores of the previous World Championships could be used to determine which teams would be competing in Tokyo. If so, we wouldn’t be one of them.” Wolves and her teammates departed for Hungary anyway, but the dreaded news came in a few days later: the OQ would be postponed to a later date in May.

“It feels as if we worked really hard for nothing. Which isn’t the case, of course, because you’re getting in shape. But all of a sudden, the moment you’ve been training for all that while isn’t next week, but in twelve weeks’ time.” And so, Iris has something else to look forward to that Tuesday afternoon. “A week’s holiday in Spain with my boyfriend. I’m really looking forward to it. Rest for a bit rather than check the NOS app every five minutes for the latest corona update.”

Catch in the living room

iris wolves op weg naar tokio 2

When we talk again over the phone, Wolves laughs when she’s reminded of what she said to us two weeks ago. Because like her fellow top athletes – and the rest of the Netherlands, for that matter – her life has been turned upside down by the corona crisis. Forget the OQ; she has to stay in quarantine. Which means playing catch in the living room, rather than training in a pool with her teammates. “Yes, things have got even weirder. We didn’t really hear much news while we were on holiday. But I was only home one day when they told us that as of that Monday, the training locations for top athletes would be closed for the time being.”

While their ‘regular’ lives have already been affected by the outbreak, this latest development has probably had even more of an impact on the water polo players. Since last summer, the members of the Olympic selection have travelled back to the Netherlands from all over the world to jointly realise their Olympic dream. Five days per week, the team came together to train at a pool in Zeist. Until the COVID-19 outbreak trashed that plan and, as a consequence, Iris’s new ‘full-time job’. Now she’s at home, waiting to see what happens next.

“Yes, there are a lot of new uncertainties. To be honest, I don’t feel too confident the OQ will be going ahead.” But no one knows what will happen in that case. Until there’s more certainty, the only thing Wolves can do is try and keep in shape. But that can be tricky if you don’t have a pool nearby. “I do power training and go out for runs. And yes, I occasionally play catch with my boyfriend. But that’s very different to practising in a pool.”


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Master’s and the national team

Right now, she’s afraid to still dream about competing in Tokyo. Even though she only really started doing that about a year ago. As a water polo player, her career ran differently to that of most of her teammates. Like the other players on the national team, Wolves was a member of the Jong Oranje youth team. But when she was old enough to apply for the ‘big’ team, she decided on a very different path: student life. “At the time, I wasn’t too keen on moving up to the seniors. After a gap year, I decided to study Law in Nijmegen and also went to live there in a student house. In the meantime, I continued to play water polo at the premiership level, but I wasn’t interested in joining the national team anymore.”

After she had earned her bachelor’s, the Greek trainer of Iris’s water polo team gave her the little nudge that saw her joining the national team after all. “He happened to also work as an assistant for the Dutch team, and he saw me play quite often. In 2018, when I was already working on my master’s in Health Law at EUR, the coach of the national team asked me to participate in their programme at Zeist.” Since then, her life has been almost entirely dominated by water polo.

marloes keetels hockey nederlands team foto koen suyk

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Real and Ajax

Incidentally, Wolves didn’t automatically feel like a fully-fledged member of ‘Oranje’ after this sudden turnaround. “It felt like I had been invited to play for Real Madrid, even though I wasn’t even fit to play for Ajax yet. I joined the rest of the team at the European Championships, but I hardly played in the actual matches. I was one of the older girls, and at the same time one of the least experienced players. This was hard in the beginning, and also felt quite awkward.”

That feeling changed about a year ago. A number of matches in Spain were the first time Wolves started feeling like a ‘real’ international. She was allowed to play in nearly every match, even though the entire selection had made it to the contest. “Everything becomes easier when you feel you’re part of the team. People listen to what you have to say in the changing room and your role becomes more important. Otherwise it all feels a bit weird or something. It’s strange how those things work out, because I guess a lot of girls would have liked to be in my situation at that point. Doing something you enjoy with your best friends. And dream about grabbing the gold at the Olympics – how great is that?”


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Doubts instead of nerves

iris wolves op weg naar tokio 3

From drinking beer at a student house in Nijmegen to taking part in the Olympics in Japan. Until a few months ago, it sounded like a wonderful dream for Wolves. But whether this dream will actually come true this summer is becoming less and less certain. First, the team has to deal with the disappointment of a cancelled European Championship, which meant it missed out on placing directly for the Tokyo Games. But by now, this frustration and the nerves in the run-up to the OQ have made way for serious uncertainty.

“I’m keeping up with my trainings, but it’s very weird to suddenly no longer know what you’re doing it for.” Because a lot is still unclear. The latest updates suggest there’s a very slim chance that the qualifiers for the different sports will be going ahead. The decision whether or not to let the Games go ahead wasn’t taken yet when the interview took place. “Imagine we get the go-ahead at that point. You only have a month-and-a-half to prepare before you leave for Tokyo. No idea how that will work out. And what have the other teams done in the meantime?”

Skirting boards

But despite all this uncertainty, disappointment and frustration, there may be a ray of light for Wolves in this whole situation. When we mentioned her studies during our earlier meeting in the Utrecht coffee shop, her face clouded over. “Don’t you see that thesis hanging over my head?” she joked. “I have a subject, and I’ve made a start, but there’s no way I can combine these two activities. Right now, it’s impossible to sit working on a thesis all day – but that’s what you need to do.”

That’s one thing that has changed for the better. Smiling: “Yes, that was also the first thing my father said: ‘Well, that means you’ll have time for your thesis’. I’ve set to work again, but it still isn’t going very smoothly. There are other things that you suddenly start doing. For example, I painted all the skirting boards this week. That had to be done too.”

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