Once More Unto the Breach: Dutch Olympian Maarten van der Weijden on Cancer & Swimming the Elfstedentocht

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Maarten van der Weijden on his swim for cancer research. Photo Courtesy: RAYMOND VAN OLPHEN

By Danny Whirlow, Swimming World College Intern. 

On August 18, 2018 – fifteen years after he beat leukemia – Dutch Olympian and gold medalist Maarten van der Weijden plunged into the frigid waters of the Netherland’s famous Elfstedentocht. Typically used a speed skating course, the Elfstedentocht covers 200 km across eleven cities in Friesland province. Van der Weijden’s goal: to swim the course in its entirety to raise money for cancer research.

Unfortunately, due to significant levels of E. coli in the water, Van der Weijden had to suspend his swim after becoming ill. He had completed 163 km of the course.

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Photo Courtesy: Casper van Aggelen

On June 21, 2019, Van der Weijden embarked on his second attempt to swim the Elfstedentocht. He powered through city after city, consuming over 10,000 calories per day and taking short naps to recharge. On the evening of June 24, Van der Weijden triumphantly swam into the city of Leeuwarden. After 74 hours and 4 minutes of swimming, he had raised €3,910,763.11 ($4,338,424.61) for cancer research.

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Photo Courtesy: Raymond van Olphen

However, donations didn’t stop pouring in after the finish line. A day later, the total amount climbed upwards of €5 million, and by June 28, €6.1 million had been raised.

Recently, Swimming World Magazine had the opportunity to speak with Van der Weijden not only about his swimming accomplishments but also his cancer treatments and future goals.

Swimming World: It has been over a month since you completed the Elfstedentocht. What is your biggest take-away from that experience?

Van der Weijden: A lot has to do with dealing with uncertainty. That it is okay to fail, okay to try for another time and the only thing you need to focus on is improve yourself.

SW: Why the Elfstedentocht?

MVDW: In the Netherlands, the Elfstedentocht is a famous speed skating event. It’s the biggest athletic event in the Netherlands – even bigger then the Olympic Games. It can only be held when there is enough ice, and the last time it was held it was 1997. Because it’s the most famous tour in the Netherlands, it was the ideal tour for me to swim.

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Photo Courtesy: Elfstedenroute

SW: This was your second attempt: the first one was cut short due illness in August 2018. How did you prepare differently going into your second attempt?

MVDW: I changed the starting date to the longest day [of the year] to have the shortest night. That really helped, together with more sleep and more food. I slept around six hours within three nights in 2019 and slept only 40 minutes in 2018. I ate 13k calories in 2018 and used more then 30k. In 2019, I took more then 10k kcal a day.

SW: What drew you to open water swimming?

MVDW: I was not able to qualify for the International Senior Championships one year after the European Youth Championships. To qualify for the World Championships, open water was possible. It was held in Hawaii in 2001 – the location was an extra motivation.

SW: How important is community involvement and charity to you?

MVDW: It’s the reason why I swam 200km. I had the luck to recover from leukemia in 2001. That luck was caused by a therapy that worked for me. Unfortunately in the Netherlands, there are more then forty thousand people who do not have the luck to recover because there is no right treatment for them. I sometimes feel “survivors guilt.” That’s why it feels good to raise funds for cancer research.
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Photo Courtesy: Raymond van Olphen

SW: Walk us through that initial cancer diagnosis. Did you think you’d ever swim again? How did the diagnosis affect you physically and mentally?

MVDW: I was ninth on the World Championships in Hawaii for the 10km, and a couple of month later, I was diagnosed with leukemia. My doctors told me that I had 30 percent to 50 percent chance of survival. I was the most lazy patient that you can imagine. The doctors were worried about my laziness as well. When they sent a physiotherapist to put me on a home trainer, I pretended I was asleep. After my recovery, I started swimming again – not to become an Olympic Champion but because I experienced that I enjoyed improving myself.

SW: What was it like returning to swimming after beating cancer?

MVDW: The first time back in the pool, I did a 100m all out and swam it in over a minute and 30 seconds. I was sad because it was so slow. A week later, I did it again and swam one minute, 23 seconds. Still slow but happy that I improved.

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Photo Courtesy: RAYMOND VAN OLPHEN

SW: What are the biggest take-aways you have from your competitive swimming career?

MVDW: Swimming is a hard thing to do. For me, it was crucial that after my illness I decided to go for swimming myself instead of listening to my parents, my friends, my coach. Before my illness, swimming was something that my parents thought was a good thing to do. After my illness, it was my decision.

SW: What has been your family’s role throughout your cancer treatment, swimming career, and now your charity work?

MVDW: Family and support are very important. My wife Daisy and I were together before the Olympics, but unfortunately, we broke up. After the Olympics, we got back together and we have two daughters now. The preparation for the Elfstedentocht has been quite intense. This time, it was a decision we made together and we were doing it together. This made us raise 5 million last year and over 6.5 million euros this year.

SW: What’s next? Are you looking to top the “Eleven Cities Tour”?

MVDW: Not sure. What is for sure is that I want to continue raising funds for cancer research. That is the most important thing now!

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Photo Courtesy: RAYMOND VAN OLPHEN

To learn more about Van der Weijden’s foundation, click here.
Watch a recap of Van der Weijden’s Elfstedentocht finish by clicking here.

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.