Friday, December 12, 2008

Pieter van den Hoogenband: The flying Dutchman

It was only appropriate that Ian Thorpe was present for the announcement of Pieter van den Hoogenband’s retirement. It was the Australian great who made Van den Hoogenband the champion he is.

The site was the Sydney Aquatic centre, at the Summer Olympics Games in 2000. Van den Hoogenband smashed Thorpe’s 200m world record in the semi-final, a record Thorpe had lowered since becoming the first man under 1 minute 46 seconds in the Olympic trials.

The final was a classic. Both men set a hot pace early and turned at the 150m mark dead level. Thorpe, the world’s greatest 400m freestyler, came up breathing in front and was expected to clear away from the Dutchman who was a better sprinter. But after going stroke for stroke to the 175, it was the Dutchman whose strength prevailed. Thorpe had been undefeated over the distance since claiming Pan Pacific gold and the world record twelve months prior. Van den Hoogenband had not only claimed Thorpe’s record in the semi (he equaled his 1:45.35 in the final) he’d beaten Thorpe in an Olympic final in the Australian’s home town.

It was a rivalry that was different to any other at the Games. Whilst Gary Hall junior’s loud mouth ignited anti-American sentiment, and Hall and Russian Alexander Popov’s 100m rivalry, which carried over from Atlanta, had political and historical overtones, Thorpe’s and Van den Hoogenband’s was a class above. They were two class acts, as humble in victory as in defeat, who were competing in a stratosphere all to their own.

Australians love a class act even more than a battling champion. Van den Hoogenband was quickly embraced as an icon of the games. But the Dutchman’s victory was even more significant in his homeland. Although the Netherlands had claimed nine gold medals in Olympic pools prior to 2000, none were owned by men. Van den Hoogenband backed up his 200m triumph with an outstanding victory over two-time defending champion and world-record holder Popov in the 100m.

He and Inge de Bruijn were the darlings of the games behind Cathy Freeman and the “far too freakish” Marion Jones.

They returned home as heroes, Van den Hoogenband was named World Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine.

But he was no overnight success story. He had burst onto the scene in Atlanta finishing fourth in the two events he claimed gold in at Sydney. He had pedigree to match. His mother Astrid was a European 800m freestyle silver medallist and a coach of some repute. His father Cees-Rain was a physio for European football giant PSV Eindhoven as well as the 1992 Dutch Olympic team.

Ironically Van den Hoogenband, the Netherlands first male Olympic champion in the pool, claims his inspiration came from “three beautiful blonde women”. Ada Kok, who won 200m butterfly gold in Mexico City, managed him whilst he was sponsored by Speedo. Ellen van Langen’s 800m freestyle victory in Barcelona was celebrated by Van den Hoogenband’s father on pool deck, whilst Van den Hoogenband held a schoolboy crush over Marianne Trimmer, who won double speed-skating gold in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

It is rare for a male athlete of Van den Hoogenband’s stature to claim his idols were females. Undoubtedly his mother’s influence was strong.

Van den Hoogenband was a marked man in the 2001 World Championships in Japan. Thorpe crushed him in the 200m and in the process reclaimed the world record with a blistering 1:44.06 (a record which stood until Michael Phelps went sub 1:44 in the 2007 Worlds in Melbourne, and then sub 1:43 in Beijing). Van den Hoogenband was also touched out twice by American Anthony Ervin in the 100m and 50m freestyles.

After walking away with four silver medals his reputation was hardly diminished, but the 2003 World Championships were equally as frustrating. He claimed two more silvers in the 100m and 200m (Popov and Thorpe again), whilst he was relegated to bronze in the 50m.

But Van den Hoogenband was a big-time performer. He thrived on that stage. He played a key part in perhaps the greatest 200m Olympic freestyle final in history, in Athens, which featured the current and two former world record holders and a young man ambitiously chasing Mark Spitz’s immortal seven gold’s at one Games.

The race was the feature of the Athens Games and it didn’t disappoint. Just as in Sydney Van den Hoogenband set the early pace having qualified fastest. He turned at the 100m 1.03 seconds under world time. But unlike Sydney it took too much out of him. Thorpe chewed up water off the 150m wall, arrested control and held late surges from the Dutchman and Phelps to set a new Olympic record and avenge his Sydney defeat. Van den Hoogenband was resigned to the silver once more.

Van den Hoogenband qualified second fastest for the 100m free final, behind the South African showman Roland Schoeman. The Dutchman was looking to become the fourth man in history to defend his Olympic 100m freestyle crown. That dream looked in tatters when Schoeman pushed off the only turn a body length in-front. Van den Hoogenband gained water with every stroke in the last 25m to touch out the South African. His celebration was pure elation. He roared with delight. Thorpe who swam in lane eight stood on the third level of the dais as his friend sung his national anthem at an Olympic games for the third time.

Thorpe’s retirement in November 2006 was a blow to Van den Hoogenband’s motivation. The Dutchman said of his friend and rival “It will be weird not having the ‘big black fish’ swimming in the lane next to mine”, referring to Thorpe’s full length bodysuit. “Because of Thorpe I always had to push my own limit.”

Such was the respect and fear he had for Thorpe his motivation to train began to wane. He became a father for the first time in June 2007 with the birth his daughter Daphne.

Although he won silver in the 200m final at the 2007 World Championships in reality he was light years behind Phelps. He also finished sixth in an electrifying 100m final.

He arrived in Beijing for what was widely understood as a last hurrah. His 100m world record which had stood for seven years (second longest reign behind American Matt Biondi) had bounced back and forth between LZR suit wearing Alain Bernhard and Eamon Sullivan. Although Van den Hoogenband broke his own national record in the heats he could only manage fifth in the final.

His legacy on Dutch swimming is immense. He owns the only three male gold medals ever won in an Olympic pool. Van den Hoogenband was the key to the only two relay medals in Dutch men’s history, silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay in Athens and the 4x200m in Sydney.

But his legacy to Dutch sport is greater. He was named Dutch Sportsman of the year on three occasions and could lay claim to being possibly the greatest Dutch sportsman behind Johan Cruijff.

He is one of the nice guys of world sport, and in retirement will be remembered as a class act. But Sydney will always remain his coup de grace.

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