“That hailstorm halfway-through wasn’t very nice.” In just over a week, Meulenbeld will be lining up at the Paralympic Qualifiers (PQ) in Italy, but the weather on the Bosbaan could hardly be called Mediterranean. There’s a chill wind out on the over 2-km long rowing course, where Meulenbeld is making her final preparations for the all-important regatta. And at the end of her training – punctuated by several wintry showers – she actually has to go outside again due to Covid restrictions. At the Olympic rowing centre, they’re doing their best to keep the teams in a bubble, meaning that visitors aren’t allowed inside. Which means our interview with Meulenbeld is taking place on the stands, looking out over the water. Come rain or shine.
Rowing, studying – and above all, lots of rest. That’s basically what the past few weeks have looked like for the Paralympic rower. She’s done everything she can to make sure she can score one of the last remaining tickets for Tokyo. For the moment, this can be seen as the final leg of her bizarre journey over the past few years. Meulenbeld first climbed into a rowboat in late 2018. She takes to it like a duck to water, and within a few months she is already being introduced to the Paralympic team. Things quickly pick up pace after that. She lands a spot in the mixed coxed four, and she and her team are determined to qualify for the Games in Japan.
Then Covid throws a spanner in the works for Meulenbeld and her team members. But in a way, having to wait an extra year wasn’t all bad news, she says: “If the PQ had gone ahead last year, it would have been my first regatta. Since then, I’ve competed in two European Championships, so I’ve gained slightly more experience in the meantime.” With ‘slightly’ being the operative word, because you don’t often see an athlete battling for an Olympic ticket in his or her third regatta. Still, Meulenbeld tries to maintain the same attitude she has taken throughout her Paralympic adventure so far: focus on the positive. “The regatta will be held on the same lake as the recent European championships – just a bit further down. So I’m somewhat familiar with the water there.”
Still: as an advantage it’s not much to speak of, due to her visual impairment. Regardless of where she’s rowing, she doesn’t see much more than her team member sitting in front of her. “Points of reference are generally quite important, I guess – that’s something I have to make do without. The coxswain (the non-rower who steers the boat, Eds.) often tells us how long we have left.” On the Bosbaan, the cox’s directions can be clearly heard thanks to the megaphone installed on the boat. Just as well for the rowers, since the coxswain is the only one who actually sits facing the finishing line. And for Meulenbeld, the cox is even more indispensable, since she is the only rower in the boat with a visual impairment.
The Dutch team has since departed for Italy. A few days of training and getting to know the water and then, at the end of the week, it’s show time. If they manage to get through the qualifiers, the team’s grand finale will be on Saturday. In her mind’s eye, Meulenbeld has already rowed this course countless times. “That’s one of the exercises our coach has set for us. I mainly focus on small parts of the race. For example: what should I do if there are boats in front of us? Although I try not to dwell too long on contingencies like that, because they might end up becoming true.” Nor does she dare to think too much about actually qualifying for Tokyo. “I don’t want to let myself down. My plan is to simply row as hard as I can.”
One thing that makes preparing extra complicated for the Paralympic rowers is that they only hear at a very late stage whom they’ll be competing against. That may sound strange for a regatta that has so much hinging on it, but it actually happens quite often in this branch of sports, according to Meulenbeld. She shows us a ritual that she must have repeated dozens of times over the past few weeks: opening the PQ website on her mobile to check whether the starting order has been published yet.
“I’ve done this so often – more or less daily. For example, some European countries didn’t actually take part in the recent Championships. So you start thinking: will they be showing up in Italy then – have they been saving their strength?” Incidentally, there are other sources besides the regatta website that she visits during this ritual. “I also check social media. Maybe someone posted something there? For example, there may be an update about a team splitting up for whatever reason – meaning they won’t be competing?”
Never seen a live race
All this tension. According to Meulenbeld, compared to the past 18 months, these final days before the PQ can hardly be called enjoyable. “More than anything, they sap your energy – energy I’d prefer to spend on rowing. It’s all part of the game and you need to learn how to deal with it, but it’s tough nevertheless.” Still, all things considered, she’s looking forward to this weekend. After all, it will be the culmination of a lot of sacrifices made over the past few months, as well as a gruelling training programme.
She’s aware that there are some extenuating circumstances should her boat fail to qualify. “I know I haven’t been on this team very long yet, and that I don’t have a lot of rowing experience. Still, I think I’ll feel quite sad if it doesn’t work out. It’s an ambitious goal, but if we succeed…” If they do qualify, Meulenbeld will have to celebrate it with her team and no one else. Covid restrictions mean that family members were forced to stay home. “That’s a pity – particularly for my parents and my boyfriend. Due to the pandemic, he has never even seen me compete in a live race.”