Triathleet Joost Somsen Photo by Andre Kwakernaat

A top athlete ánd a student

Study as a fallback

Triathleet Joost Somsen Photo by Andre Kwakernaat
Most top athletes spend at least twenty-five hours a week on their sport, which is about the same as a three-day job. Nevertheless, approximately eighty top athletes also study at the UG.
27 October om 9:04 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 November 2021
om 15:03 uur.
October 27 at 9:04 AM.
Last modified on November 29, 2021
at 15:03 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Lydwine Huizinga

27 October om 9:04 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 November 2021
om 15:03 uur.
Avatar photo

By Lydwine Huizinga

October 27 at 9:04 AM.
Last modified on November 29, 2021
at 15:03 PM.
Avatar photo

Lydwine Huizinga

‘My hat’s off to every top athlete who graduates from university’, says top-class sports coordinator Cees Reitsma. ‘Be prepared’, he warns newcomers. ‘Find out everything you can. Visit open days and compare the options each programme has. There are many, but please don’t do it just because your parents want you to have a degree.’

Reitsma loves the top athletes he coaches in their studies, but he won’t lie to them: ‘Combining a sports career and studying isn’t easy.’ He doesn’t consider it a failure if athletes have to drop out of university to focus on their sports. ‘You can always go back later.’


Take cyclist Bauke Mollema. He was a talented economics student who signed a contract with the Rabobank cycling team. It was a pivotal moment in his cycling career, but it also meant the end of his studies: it became too much.

Nevertheless, ‘athletes have my options’, says Reitsma. Some athletes take all the courses in block, but some only take one or two courses a semester; they can pretty decide how they want to do. They can also request to be exempt from the binding study advice.

However, they do need to be officially recognised at top athletes by the NOC*NSF. Clubs like FC Groningen, Donar, and Lycurgus also have a deal with the UG.


The exact possibilities, such as taking exams online, vary from programme to programme. Reitsma tries to connect new athletes with others doing the same programme. ‘It gives them someone to spar with and provides a good overview of their options.’

Reitsma warns that it requires a lot of resilience. Studying at a university is hard, and so are top-class sports. Combining the two can be deadly. It requires discipline and organisation. ‘Sometimes you just have to be happy with a barely passing grade. A lot of top athletes find that hard to accept, because they tend to be perfectionists.’

Reitsma loves it when his athletes graduate. However: ‘The absolute best thing is when a student joins the ranks of Olympic athletes’, he admits. ‘But I’m happy with every student who does well, regardless of the medals they win or the celebrity status they achieve.’

Triathleet Joost Somsen

Photo by Andre Kwakernaat

Most days, triathlete Joost Somsen (22) is at the pool at seven in the morning for his first training session. After that, he attends class and spends some time studying. He eats a large lunch and has one or two hours to himself. 

After that, it’s time for a second training session, after which he goes home, drained. He goes to bed at ten o’clock. Somsen estimates his training takes up twenty hours a week, excluding preparations and travel.

Who cares if your results suffer for a year?

When he started studying, doing triathlons was still a hobby, but Somsen became a little more fanatic each year. During his master in biomedical engineering, he first appealed to the UG’s top athlete arrangement: he was allowed to take a test online. ‘The university really helped me out. It was really great.’

Lose their way

Somsen advises other athletes not to give up studying, so they’ll have something besides just sports. ‘I know a lot of guys who dropped out. They sometimes kind of lose their way and get tunnel vision. When their athletic career isn’t going well, it affects their whole lives.’

‘I don’t want triathlons to be the only thing in my life. Sure, there are times when I spend most of my days training, but I love having something else to focus on besides that’, says Somsen.

Combining studying and sports is demanding, he says. ‘My tip? Make sure you plan everything. Just give it a try. Who cares if your results suffer for a year? Athletes lose more competitions than they win.’


Somsen is ambitious. ‘I fell a little behind because of the Covid-19 restrictions this year, but this winter, I hope to get in a lot of training to prepare for the next season.’ Next year, he wants to become the Dutch triathlon champion and finish his master.

His secret: sports are still a hobby for him. ‘I enjoy it, which means it never feels like I’m giving up anything. In fact, I only get good things in return: I get to see the world and meet nice people. There are no downsides.’

Marathon skater Dieuwertje Van Kalken

Photo by Vincent Riemersma

In 2018, Dieuwertje van Kalken became the Dutch junior champion in marathon skating. Today, she’s a professional. She flies all over the world and combines her athletic career with her medical studies.

‘It was really hard during the first year’, she says. ‘I started in September, which is when the skating season starts as well. It was really intense and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep it up. Now I’m in my third year and everything’s going great.’

Once I’m a doctor, I can’t tell people that I don’t know something because I was away at training when they taught that class

The combination takes discipline; there’s no relaxing on the couch or long lazy weekends. ‘I don’t have a lot of free time’, says Van Kalken, laughing. ‘Then again, because I do sports at such a high level, I’m very physically fit, which makes studying easier.’ She doesn’t go out a lot. ‘Partying and dealing with hangovers is really hard. It also takes up a lot of time.’

Van Kalken is studying at a normal pace, which is hard enough. Thanks to the top-class sports arrangement, she’s able to combine her studies and her athletic career. ‘I take classes online and take resits when I’m unable to attend the original exams. I decide my own schedule.’

Your whole life

However, she tries to make sure she attends as many classes as possible in person. ‘I don’t want to get by on mediocre grades. Once I’m a doctor, I can’t tell people that I don’t know something because I was away at training when they taught that class.’

She’s glad that she has something to fall back on. ‘I always tell my fellow skaters that they need an extracurricular activity. You’ll go mad if you don’t. We’re so focused on our bodies, but we need to occupy our minds as well. What if something goes wrong? That’s your whole life.’

‘Make sure you know what you’re getting into’, she advises. ‘Explore your options. Know whether you can go to training camp and take a resit, for instance. Otherwise, you’ll get behind, and that will only lead to stress. If you know what your options are, you’re much more relaxed and you’ll be able to focus on what’s important.