Six days of training a week, strong performances at the European level and a training camp in Spain. At first glance, not much has changed for rowers Amber Meulenbeld and Marieke Keijser. Their lives are quite similar to what they were doing a year ago: rowing and studying. But the impact of the Covid crisis is never far off – including in the world of rowing. Although for these particular students, it has mainly put wind in their sails.
Amber Meulenbeld: ‘I couldn’t think of any other way to describe my life than top-class sports’
“In the past, I occasionally felt that I wasn’t taken entirely seriously as a Paralympic rower. Nowadays, I train six days a week and study on the side. I couldn’t think of any other way to describe my life than top-class sports. I used to think ‘Wow, what a load of work: training six days a week and doing other things besides.’ But in the past few months, I’ve discovered that you actually grow into it – and now I don’t find it that difficult to handle at all.”
“I used to train a lot before the Covid crisis too, but I’ve stepped up my game now. I’m in the final selection as one of the four rowers in our boat, and we rowed our first race as a team in October, during the European Championships (EC). That was definitely the highlight so far, because at that point it all became ‘real’. Although we placed fifth – out of a field of five – we did set a Dutch record.”
On the road to Tokyo: ‘It’s very weird to no longer know what you’re doing it for’
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“After the championships I made a few adjustments to my lifestyle. I really committed to the training and paid more attention to my diet, for example. Do I eat enough? How do I get through the training? I have to take it more seriously – that’s unavoidable with this programme. And it’s true, I’m still doing two study programmes on the side. I hope to obtain my first master’s degree in the summer: at that point, after Tokyo, I’ll have a bit more time for studying. It does help that everything’s online at the moment – that makes it easier to combine training and studying.”
“We have another EC in April, followed by the Olympic Qualification Regatta (OQR) in May. How do I see our chances? Normally, I’d know all the point totals and rankings, but this one is difficult to predict. We don’t know which result is good enough for a ticket to Tokyo. Yes, finish first or second at the OQR, but I have no idea how fast we need to row. We’re already going faster than the previous team in this boat, and we are steadily closing in on the number one team. But you don’t know what those other teams are up to, because there aren’t any races. It’s a hassle that this one race in October is our only experience so far. But this doesn’t make us less motivated. It’s huge fun, and I don’t think I can work any harder that I’m doing right now.”
Marieke Keijser ‘finally feels the same as all the other students’
“I’m at a training camp in the Sierra Nevada in Spain, and this is truly the toughest training camp ever. Cycling, weight training, exercise machines: all of this is primarily intended to lay a solid foundation for the rest of the year. After this, we’re heading to Seville, which is where we will start rowing again. Spending five-and-a-half weeks at a training camp is almost like the old days.
“Apart from all the Covid woes, I’ve actually had a great summer. I spent a lot of time cycling and rowing in the outdoors. Of course, I’m sick of this pandemic too, and at first it was really a rude awakening. My idea of going back to Rotterdam to study after the Games didn’t work out, which was a disappointment. But soon I was busy with so many other things that the year has flown by.”
“And I even managed to earn 30 credits this academic year. It may sound insensitive, but for me, online studying has really worked out well. I finally feel the same as all the other students. OK, when I have a lecture at 9 a.m., I’m eating a bowl of quark because I’m back from a 90-minute training session – while the other students may still be in bed. But nevertheless, we’re attending the same lecture. That was a long time ago for me.
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“Thanks to the events of the past few months, I’ve really started enjoying what I’m doing now a lot more. I always thought: I have to study, because at a certain point that window will have passed – I really felt the pressure. But now I realise that I can also study in ten years’ time. I’ve become aware of how great the life is I’m living right now. Exercising every day, showing stamina when you’re having an off day, constantly trying to improve your performance. This process is a lot more fun than I thought – perhaps precisely because that big end goal of the Games was off the table for a while. For a long while you had this new focus, improving your performance, since the other factors were all so uncertain.
“My planning for the rest of the year is exactly the same as a year ago. In October, we took home the gold at the European Championships, and we don’t intend to change our preparations as long as we don’t receive a no-go from Tokyo or other regattas. International sports involve a lot of uncertainty as it is, but this is next-level uncertainty. But I’m loving every moment. I realise that for the moment, with all the freedoms I enjoy – when it comes to travel, for instance – I’m leading the coolest life in the world. You can’t compete at a world-class level forever, which is why I need to savour it as much as I can right now.”