Caroline and Ingerare going to the Games
Gold medals are there for the taking
Track cyclist Caroline Groot
A few years ago, Carolin Groot’s Olympic dream came to an abrupt end. She was a promising ice skater and was convinced she’d be going to the Olympics.
But then something went wrong during surgery for a common skating injury. The doctor hit a nerve, and she now has permanent damage to her lower leg. She could still skate, but she’d never reach her earlier speed again.
So much for the Olympic dream.
Groot decided to drastically change her life. ‘Winning is important to me. I could no longer reach the heights that I’d been aspiring to. That wasn’t good enough for me.’ She quit professional ice skating and started studying law.
Road racing is more of a game, which I didn’t like as much
Sports was no longer a priority in Caroline’s life. She did continue to participate in road bicycle racing, a sport many ice skaters do in the summer to stay in shape. The only drawback was that she didn’t enjoy riding in a pack. ‘In skating, the best person wins. Road racing is more of a game, which I didn’t like as much.’
Then, she discovered the sport of paralympic track racing. She decided to give it a go, just for fun. ‘It immediately felt a lot better’, says Caroline. She had a natural talent for the sport. The fire she needed to win was burning once again.
She decided to fully commit to track racing and did brilliantly. She became world champion in the 500-metre race in both 2018 and 2019. These victories meant she had a good chance of joining the Paralympic Games in 2020. Her Olympic dream was back. Or rather, she had a new, Paralympic dream.
I have to win that Paralympic medal
In the Paralympics, the participants’ handicaps vary. ‘During the world championship, I’d finally bested my biggest competitors’, says Caroline. ‘But then a really experienced woman from regular track racing switched over. She had a small handicap from an accident. She can still ride as fast as she did before the handicap. I’m not sure I’ll be able to beat her.’
Is this hard to accept for someone who wants to win all the time? ‘Winning gold medals at the championships isn’t enough. I have to win that Paralympic medal’, she says. ‘But I also have to be realistic. If I can give my competitor a hard time, I’ll be happy. I’m not going home crying if I come second.’
After the pandemic of the past year, any medal will be reason to celebrate. ‘We’ve had such a long time to prepare: a year rather than just a few months. I’ve been getting increasingly nervous.’
To her surprise, people occasionally asked her if she was still training. ‘Of course I am! I can’t just sit on my ass for a year and wait for Tokyo to happen. I think there were just two months that we didn’t train on the track itself. We were allowed to use it the rest of the year.’
The Games’ postponement is even working out in her favour. ‘I’m one of the youngest athletes. This extra year is giving me an advantage over the older, more experienced athletes. They won’t improve anymore, but I will. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to beat my biggest competitor last year.’
The older athletes won’t improve anymore, but I will
But there’s also a disadvantage: she doesn’t know where she ranks among her competition, because there were no international races at all this year. ‘They allow me to be aware of what the other women are doing. Now, I have no idea. That’s not great, but it does make it all the more exciting.’
Races like that keep her going. ‘I hate training outside for two hours. It’s the speed and the competitive element that make me enjoy the sport. It’s not necessarily the cycling itself.’
She doesn’t know if she’ll quit cycling after this. It’s tempting to keep going, especially since the next Games will be in just three years, but there are other things in life. ‘I already know that I won’t keep competing until I’m forty’, she says. ‘Track racing is just a way station; I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer.’
Her perseverance and winning spirit will aid her in her career pursuits, she thinks. ‘Sports have taught me a lot.’
Handball player Inger Smits
Inger Smits thinks she’s in with a chance. Last year, the movement sciences student expected she wouldn’t make the selection for the Dutch Olympic handball team. But now…
‘This extra year really helped, mentally and physically speaking’, she says. ‘I’m fitter and more motivated than ever.’
As she talks about the selection process, you can basically feel the tension. It’s not certain she’ll make the team. The Dutch women’s team will start preparing in June, and it’s possible she won’t hear if she’ll be able to go to Tokyo until July.
If the Olympic Games had taken place last year, she probably wouldn’t have made it. The Games’ postponement came at exactly the right time for her. ‘I’ve solidified my position on the Dutch team. I’ve played a lot of international-level games over the past year, including the Champions League.’ There’s no chance the national coach missed her great achievements.
I didn’t care which sport took me to the Olympics
Inger has been working on getting to the Games since she was twelve. ‘That’s when I became a fanatic. I would get up before 7 a.m. to train and then went to school.’ In addition to handball, she also did gymnastics. ‘I didn’t really care which sport took me to the Olympics, as long as I got there.’
How did a child become so fascinated by the Olympic Games? ‘I grew up playing handball’, she says. ‘My entire family plays it. I spent my childhood on the handball court, surrounded by athletes. People who’d competed in the Games told me the Olympics were so different from regular competitions. That they were almost magical. I’ve been curious ever since. I just want to feel it for myself.’
When the pandemic started, she stayed home for more than two weeks for the first time in years. It was actually kind of nice. ‘I didn’t feel the pressure of training or competitions. Normally, I have two weeks of summer holidays, but even then I’m supposed to train. When I’d get back to playing handball I never really felt relaxed. But now, I feel recharged.’
She and her handball team won the world championship in 2019, but it’s not enough for Inger. ‘The Games are my ultimate dream. Top athletes always want more, bigger and better things.’ She understands that the outside world also has great expectations for the Dutch team, because they’ve been doing well for years. ‘But there’s no guarantee of a victory. The bar is so high. A few of us were injured during the last European championship. We only came sixth.’
I’m a really sore loser, I can’t even handle losing board games
If everything goes well, they might just win gold, Inger thinks. And if they don’t? ‘I’m a really sore loser. I can’t even handle losing board games. I want to be the very best I can be.’ However, she will also be happy if they only get silver, she says. ‘Any Olympic medal is something to be proud of.’
When she’s not training, she makes time to study: she’s nearly finished her bachelor in movement sciences. ‘I want something to fall back on. I can’t just sit back and enjoy my pension, like some football players can’, she says.
But she’d like to continue playing handball for a few more years. Perhaps she’ll attend the Games not once, but twice. And after that? ‘I’d like to keep working within the field of sports. I’d love to work with top athletes when I’ve finished my master.’