On slightly worn benches, one blue, one brown and one wooden, twelve students sit in a circle. They are the Skadi committee in charge of the Rottebokaal (the Rotte Trophy), the biggest rowing competition organised by the student rowing club. Two thousand people lined the banks for the last edition. A wispy, young apple tree is part of the crowd that is wandering around.

This tree is the reason why former president Gilles Luyendijk still likes to come here. Luyendijk and Niels van Rooijen rowed together in their first year at Skadi, were on the board together, were flatmates and friends. The tree was planted in memory of Niels. On Friday, the club christened a boat in honour of the student who died just over a year ago. His death gave added meaning to the mission to make Skadi a society for all.

Among other things, this story deals with suicide. Are you having suicidal thoughts? Call Foundation 113 anonymously via 113 or 0800-0113 (free of charge), or talk with someone via the chat line on the 113.nl website. Staff are on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Would you just like to talk to someone? You can also do that at the university. Drop by The Living Room or make an appointment with a student psychologist.

In the Jonghe 8 square near Skadi, an apple tree was planted in Niels’ honour. Image credit: Hilde Speet

The smile disappeared

Niels is in a bad way at the beginning of 2021. He is doing two degrees, one in Fiscal Economics and one in Economics and Business Economics. His sister, Inge, later told AD that due to his studies, the lockdowns and the death of his grandmother, Niels was getting more and more bogged down. All the while, Niels keeps slugging on, even with his cherished Skadi club. In the summer of 2021, he starts as a member of the board, with competition rowing under his wing. “He was there all the time”, recalls Annemijn de Kleer, current president at Skadi. “He didn’t have to. On Saturday mornings, he would cycle along the side with the race teams at seven in the morning. For an ordinary training session, nothing special. That’s how he was.”

It got worse and worse in the year 2021-2022 for Niels, his roommate sensed. “It was obvious that Niels was suffering from depression,” Luyendijk goes on to say. “Everyone knew him from his big smile, and how he always gave two thumbs up in photos. That smile disappeared at some point. Niels was already spending less and less time at the club before summer arrived, and it was noticeable. Before, he’d been at every competition of every team, no matter whether they ended up last or shone that day.”

At the beginning of the summer of 2022, his roommates call the crisis line. Niels is going through a rough time and had attempted suicide. He is put on a waiting list and moves back in with his parents. Many students go home for the summer, and the club closes until Eureka week. All of his flatmates assume that they will all be back together again in the new academic year.

A club in mourning

“A few days before he died, I was with Niels in Amstelveen,” Luyendijk continues. “It may sound strange, but at the time, I felt like I had my old friend back. He had completed a course; he was doing the homework the counsellor had set. We talked about jobs, about going cycling with some team mates in a week’s time. I know now that he had already made up his mind at that point, he left a notebook. But at back then, it seemed as if didn’t have any other worries on his mind, no stress.”

SKADI_roeivereniging_Gilles Luyendijk_Annemijn de Kleer_Fabien Schoenmakers_sept2023_Hilde-Speet_3000
Gilles Luyendijk, Annemijn de Kleer and Fabien Schoenmakers notice that within Skadi people are talking much more, that members dare to share much more with each other. Image credit: Hilde Speet

It was difficult for Fabien Schoenmakers, last year’s president, to separate his personal grief from the grief felt within the club. And it still is. After Niels’ death, both Luyendijk’s board and Schoenmakers’ board went into full control mode. What will they do with Eureka week? With the silent procession? Who will arrange flowers and a condolence book for the memorial in the indoor rowing machine hall?

Skadi terras 2020_eurekaweek_foto door Amber Leijen

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After that, it will be up to Schoenmakers and his board to give this loss a place in the club. “Not everyone deals with it in the same way. You can’t force a whole new group of students who don’t know him to mourn him. We,” he says, referring to his predecessors and successors, “will always carry this with us. All of us who knew him.”

Courage starts here

‘Men sist                                                                                            ‘People sneer
Men gist                                                                                             People speculate
Men vist                                                                                             People fish

En men beslist, en zo ist.’                                                         And people judge, that’s how it is.’

This is one of the signs hanging on the wall of the committee’s meeting room. Relics of the association are everywhere. Photographs of victories, banners, signs, posters. Long before Niels died, this room was used to discuss the then upcoming Lustrum year (now over) and the theme it would have. “Desire. Courage starts here”. A video announces this theme. It shows a young man struggling with how hard he is on himself. Is he strong enough to reach the top? How would members react if they knew he was attracted to men?

The video attracted a lot of attention in the Dutch rowing world, with the boards of other clubs expressing their admiration. “Rowing is really tough,” explains current president De Kleer. “It’s often lousy weather, it’s windy, you get blisters on your hands, you use your whole body. The tendency is to keep your mouth shut and just bite the bullet. The technique of rowing is so refined that you can talk for an hour about a millisecond during the drive. You can take it that far and rowers are people who will actually do that. They are just as hard on themselves. Rowing is about pushing past your limits. What we are saying with this theme is: Listen to yourself for a sec. Have the courage to do that too.”

lustrumlogo Skadi in regenboogkleuren
All of Skadi’s matches in the lustrum year were rowed in these special shirts. Image credit: Skadi

Since Niels died, this has taken on an extra dimension. The board and committee members want a club where everyone feels at home and can be themselves. This is reflected in the theme, but also in the committee that has been set up for this purpose, in the way they treat each other, and in small interventions they make to revise traditions.

During the Lustrum year, for instance, the lustrum logo in rainbow colours adorned the chest of the competition shirt. If you want everyone to be able to be themselves, you have to work towards creating a safer club, says Schoenmakers. “91 percent of rowers in the Netherlands are white, the majority are male and highly educated”, says Luyendijk. “Rowing is expensive. It is a bit of who-knows-who world.”

De Kleer nods vigorously at the words of her predecessors. “A lot of people say that same-sex love is already accepted, but at best, it is tolerated. A lot of people, especially older rowers, don’t want to see two men kissing. They don’t want to be confronted with it. That just isn’t good enough.”

In the opinion of the Lustrum committee, the national rowing federation talks a lot about being more inclusive, but nothing is done. “Then we’ll take the lead,” says Rui de Boer of the lustrum committee. Many rowing traditions have already been around for 100 years or almost a century. De Boer cites the example of asking someone on a date to the annual gala. While a guy gets to ask a woman with a blue card, in a leap year, it’s a woman who can ask a man out with a pink card. “What if, if you’re a man, you want to ask a guy out, or if you’re a woman, you want to ask another woman out?” De Boer, who is attracted to men, and was confronted with these kinds of questions himself during his first year. “So, a more inclusive club was an issue for me from day one. When I arrived, I asked myself: ‘what could I share and how would people react?’ I had to gauge that a bit before I had the courage to say anything.”

The video attracted a lot of attention in the Dutch rowing world, boards of other clubs expressed their admiration. “Rowing is very difficult”, explains president De Kleer. “It is often rotten weather, it is windy, you get blisters on your hands, you use your whole body. The tendency is: you keep your mouth shut and you just bite through the sour apple. The technique in rowing is so fine that you can talk for an hour about a millisecond in the drive. You can take it that far and rowers are people who do that. They are equally hard on themselves. Rowing is about going beyond your limits. We are saying with this theme: listen to yourself for a moment too. Dare to do that too.”

SKADI_roeivereniging_Annemijn de Kleer_Fabien Schoenmakers_Gilles Luyendijk_sept2023_Hilde-Speet_3000
Of course, a rowing club is all about rowing. Annemijn de Kleer and Fabien Schoenmakers help one of the competitive rowers. Image credit: Hilde Speet

The desire to make the club even nicer

Making the club more enjoyable for a wider variety of people is what drives the board and committee members. “We all enjoy coming here, but we also see that things could be better”, says Skadian member Marieke van der Pijl. She and five other women, including president De Kleer, wrote a letter to the board last year. “We heard from several women that the atmosphere wasn’t always that nice. Women are often talked over and objectified more than men.” All these things happen all over the world, says De Kleer, but they saw an opportunity to address the atmosphere within the club.

This is why Van der Pijl will chair a new diversity and inclusion committee this year. “We don’t want to impose anything, but take small steps. This association is completely renewed every five years once students graduate. We want to start the conversation in a fairly subtle way, so that even people who did not know Niels know that it is important to keep on talking. The plan is to organise events, for example, about mental health.”

Changing an almost 100-year-old organisation is not always easy, as Luyendijk found out. On the one hand, he is enthusiastic about the workshops on consent and sexuality organised by the GELIJKSPEL (EQUAL PLAY) student organisation, but on the other hand, he also received criticism for organising the workshops during the introductory camp. “‘Is that really necessary?’, ‘Can’t it be done after the initiation period?’ -Those were the reactions we got last year”, says Luyendijk. “This year, it was just part of the whole thing.” Schoenmakers agrees: “It was in last year’s playbook, that’s how you create new traditions.”

Skadi wins the Varsity

Sometimes traditions are formed on the spot. In April, the women’s team from Skadi won the Varsity for the first time the most prestigious rowing competition of the year. The highest the club can achieve. Schoenmakers: “Then you’ve got to make a choice. How do you honour these winners? The same as the men, of course. We all jumped into the water, they got a ride in a carriage and wore white jackets. De Kleer feels the same amount of enthusiasm. “We all wear black jackets, the members wear white trousers and the board wears black. A white jacket and black trousers make you stand out. The first years have to memorise all the names of the Varsity winners, and now there are women’s names among them too.”

This Varsity was the first for Luyendijk without Niels. Winning this race was a big dream for Niels. “In the car, a coach asked me how I was doing,” says Luyendijk. “I said: ‘Yeah, I feel pretty crap.’ That day turned out great because of the win. But when you swim across to the boat after such a win, you are swimming without someone who would have wanted to swim with you.”

Dare to ask for help

Since Niels’ death, committee and board members have noticed a big change. Skadians are talking to each other more now. “Not everyone understands each other, but if you mention that something hurts you, people do listen,” says De Kleer. “Conversations are more often about how things really are. Niels’ death has played a big part in this. We now know how important it is to have these kinds of conversations.”

There is a general feeling in the club that members who have been through last year’s bereavement are more likely to ask for help. De Boer hopes that the new first-years will pluck up the courage to do the same. “Have the courage to ask for help,” is his message. “You’ll find that lots of people, really a lot more than you might think, will be there for you. And be yourself. It’s such a waste if you’re not yourself when you’re a student.”

SKADI bestuur 20212022
The Skadi board of 2021/2022. Seen from the left, Niels is the third student in the row. Image credit: Skadi
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