Marinde Smolders (23) is one of many elite athletes studying at EUR. The sport she devotes 25 hours a week to is practiced by a few dozen competitive wheel gymnasts across the Netherlands on a professional basis. From her beginnings in the sport to her first upcoming competition since recovering from a devastating double injury, Marinde talks about her journey.

Wheel gymnastics

Originating in Germany, wheel gymnastics (rhönrad in German and Dutch) is a form of non-Olympic gymnastics performed with a large hoop. While the gymnast makes the wheel move, they perform various choreographies which Marinde describes as ‘gravity-defying tricks’. These types of gymnastics are typically seen in circuses or non-competitive sport display events. Marinde, however, is one of the few athletes in the country to train and perform the sport at the highest level, participating in regional, European, and World championships.

Third place

Her family doesn’t have a sports background, but Marinde took up regular gymnastics already at the age of 5. Only seven years later, however, she decided to quit gymnastics altogether, due to knee injuries and losing interest in the sport. She quickly realised that she wanted to continue sports after having a ‘whole summer vacation of not being able to sit still and just jumping around the house’. So she took beginners classes in wheel gymnastics, which she saw at a show a few years before and was captivated by it. Although wheel gymnastics requires a lot of flexibility and core strength, she first took classes for fun.

Her first coach, who she considers her ‘role model’, initially discovered her talent and persuaded Marinde to train for tournaments. Marinde participated in various competitions and won medals, but her third-place finish at her World Championship debut in 2018 was an eye-opener for her. “I placed first in the qualifications and then in the final I placed third. Once I stood on the podium, I was like, ‘wait, maybe I really have something for the sport.’”

Marinde Smolders-wheel gymnastics-rhönrad_5_18.11.23_Kim Casamitjana
Marinde in her ‘big hamster wheel’. Image credit: Kim Casamitjana


The sport has to deal with misconceptions, given its niche status. “When you say ‘wheel gymnastics’, it doesn’t ring any bells. But once you say ‘I’m inside a big hamster wheel’, they remember they saw it on television once”, she says. Although Marinde explains that it’s also a competitive sport, most people think wheel gymnastics is something they could casually try by themselves.

According to Marinde, people also get confused by the nature of the sport. “Sometimes people go ‘oh, so you’re not a real gymnast, so you can’t do any somersaults’. But we do the same tricks, the same somersaults, just to a smaller extent”, Marinde reveals.



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Balancing a bachelor’s degree, wheel gymnastics, and social life is one of the hardest aspects of being a wheel gymnast for Marinde. She now intertwines everything, including having close friends who are also wheel gymnasts. “It’s very fun to just build on the friendship and just talk to everybody about everything you experience, about your family, about your other friends, about the things you struggle with, but also the things that you are very excited about or the next steps in your life”, she describes.

Additionally, the low popularity of wheel gymnastics also means she doesn’t receive much support as an athlete. Besides the support from EUR, she lacks sponsorships and support from other institutions and that can be especially tough for a student-athlete. “Wheel gymnastics and other types are cut off to pour more money into mainstream Olympic gymnastics”, she says. “When we join international competitions, we always come forward representing the Netherlands, so it would be cool to receive the best possibilities and support.”

Double injury

The biggest setback Marinde experienced was completely shattering her right ankle in October 2021. Despite being sidelined for up to nine months, the first thought she had in the hospital was ‘shit, I can’t go to practice tomorrow’.

Gutted that she would potentially miss out on an upcoming competition, she pushed her limits to recover as quickly as possible. “I took off my cast and tried to do wheel gymnastics before I could walk”, she admits. “My coaches and health professionals had a very hard time slowing me down because I was so motivated to make it to the competition. I ended up tearing the ligaments of the same ankle”, Marinde recalls.

Marinde Smolders-wheel gymnastics-rhönrad_4_18.11.23_Kim Casamitjana
‘We do the same tricks, the same somersaults, just to a smaller extent’ Image credit: Kim Casamitjana

This second injury, which she recovered from by the summer of 2022, was an insightful experience. “I learned so much about my own body and mind than I could ever imagine me learning in sports, so maybe this was a blessing in disguise!”, Marinde says. Despite all the obstacles, she is more motivated than ever to compete in wheel gymnastics for at least the next three years and continue her involvement in the sport for years to come. “It’s such a big passion of mine. I also teach wheel gymnastics to little kids and beginners. I can never get enough of this sport. It’s my world by all means.”

Just have fun

Marinde will be participating in her first post-injury competitive tournament this weekend in Austria. Excited to compete again, she has to constantly remind herself that she has to proceed step-by-step. “I want to be at the highest level again immediately, but that’s not possible. The fact that I will be standing on the competition floor is already an accomplishment”, she says.

The past injury woes transformed Marinde’s mindset. For her, competing is not about winning or losing anymore. “I just want to stand there and show the world what I have to offer, show my creativity and strength, and just have fun with that.”