It was the year of Femke Bol. She became European indoor champion in the 400 meters and 4×400 meters relay, won the world title in ‘her’ 400 meters hurdles and with the women’s relay. She also improved an ancient world record in the 400 meters indoors. On the other hand, there was a dramatic fall in the World Cup final of the mixed relay. We look back on an eventful 2023 with the 23-year-old athlete.
You were awarded the Golden Televizier Ring on October 12. Was that more exciting than running in a World Cup final?
Laughing: “A World Cup final is of course also exciting, but on the athletics track I am on my own turf. At the presentation of the Televizier-Ring I stood on a stage, I had to do something that I am not used to, which was exciting in a different way. But it was honorable that I was asked to do that.”
Awards, galas, award ceremonies, sponsorship offers; It’s bizarre what comes your way. What is it like to be Femke these days?
“Nice. And at the same time it takes some getting used to, because so many people want something from me. Fortunately, I have a very good manager who filters everything for me. I’m also lucky that all the attention didn’t come overnight, it just added up a little bit. When I won Olympic bronze in 2021, people suddenly knew about my existence. When I won two silver medals at the World Championships and three gold medals at the European Championships a year later, even more attention came. And then you become world champion twice…”
Are you finding it increasingly easier to step onto a stage other than one in an athletics stadium?
Nods: “Three years ago I was still quite shy. Look, I have never been a frontrunner, nor did I ever think that I wanted to be famous. I just wanted to exercise. When you become known for that, it is strange at first. But at the same time it is good to go outside my comfort zone every now and then, such as awarding the Televizier Ring.”
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Do you take the self-confidence you gain from your performance on the court with you into everyday life?
“I don’t think so, actually. The athletics track is my place, there I do my thing and I am completely myself. But beyond that… When we do the photo shoot after this interview, I think: can I do that? I always find those kinds of things exciting.”
You were also recently honored by your old athletics club Altis in your hometown Amersfoort. A lot of kids came to that, right?
“When I see how much fun the children are having, it reminds me of the time I had there when I was very young. I try to be a good example for children.”
We live in a time when many children suffer from lack of exercise. Then it doesn’t hurt that you – and the entire Dutch athletics community – is doing so well and that the youth have role models.
“I am aware that with our performances we can show that it is cool to participate in athletics and to be healthy. It is a good signal that there are now almost waiting lists for children to join athletics clubs. I think it is one of the best things about my success that I can inspire children to get active.”
People can easily identify with you. Anyone who sees you might think: that could have been my girl next door.
Laughing: “I notice that people see me that way, yes.”
“I got that DM from Usain Bolt… He’s such an icon, so cool that he messaged me. I actually still think it’s special and crazy that he knows who I am’
We almost always see you smiling before and after a race. And after every competition you seem genuinely surprised that you have beaten the competition home again. From the outside, your life looks like Femke in Wonderland.
“The great thing about athletics is that you can surprise yourself every time. When I notice that what I have worked hard for in training comes to fruition in the competitions, then yes, that makes me very happy. I ran my personal best of 51.45 in London, having never run under 52 seconds in the 400 meter hurdles before this year. Just before the match in London, I ran 52.76 at the Diamond League match in Lausanne. If I improve my PR by more than half a second, I just can’t believe it. Those are such beautiful moments.”
You yourself have not changed, but your life has. Do you get help on how to put everything in a place?
“I have been working with a psychologist since the Tokyo Games in 2021, who also helps me learn to deal with everything that comes my way. I also have my coaches, teammates, friends and family.” Laughing: “As long as they don’t think I’m doing very strange things, it’s fine.”
But what tools does the psychologist give you?
“We talk about things that I’m struggling with. I sometimes find it difficult that everyone suddenly thinks something of me. I was and am not used to the fact that in this day and age with social media, two thousand people just have an opinion about me. I talk to her about that. I’ve also decided to stop reading comments about me, except for DMs from people I know. I know that out of a hundred responses, 99 are very sweet, but it is precisely the less nice ones that often stick with me. Before a tournament I stay off social media completely. Because all those opinions don’t help me to run, they are a distraction at that moment.”
Let’s criss-cross through your year. On August 24, you fulfilled the role of favorite in the 400 meter hurdles. You won in 51.70 and became the fourth Dutch world champion in athletics. Take us back to that finale.
“When I was introduced for the final, I was cheered so much. After the starting shot I quickly got into my rhythm. Hurdles six and seven, in the second turn, were actually super easy, while I often had a harder time there due to my new stride rhythm. I already started to overtake the others. On the final straight I knew: just keep doing my thing and everything will be fine.
I looked at the scoreboard and saw 51.70, my second best time. And that after such a week, with a fall in the relay, with heats and a semi-final in the hurdles that always make it harder to run a good time in the final. And with the pressure on because everyone expected me to win gold for a while. I haven’t often been so proud of myself. That time made the gold medal even sweeter. There were people who thought I would play it safe in the final. I always go for it, if you play it safe in the 400 meter hurdles, you will make mistakes.
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Then I walked a lap of honor with the Dutch flag. I saw so many Dutch flags in the stands, something I had never experienced before. And I saw my parents who were so happy too. Afterwards I was bouncing around in the mixed zone like a happy egg.”
You already mentioned your new stride rhythm. At the end of 2022, with the help of your coaches Laurent Meuwly and Bram Peters, you went from fifteen to fourteen steps between the hurdles. Your stride length 2.15 to 2.27 meters. Please explain how big that change is?
“To make a stride twelve centimeters longer and keep the same speed is a very difficult and big job. On the one hand, you have to become stronger, and you also have to work on your technique because sometimes you go over the hurdle first with your left leg and the next with your right. With a rhythm of fifteen steps, I always crossed the hurdle first with my left leg. I really had to teach myself a new way of hurdling.”
You still went very fast the old way, didn’t you?
“I went fast with those fifteen steps between the hurdles, but it no longer felt good. I was too close to the hurdles. Laurent said to me last year: ‘Fem, you’re 22, are you going to keep doing this in fifteen steps for the rest of your career? I’m afraid you will find the 400 meter hurdles boring. And I also think that you will then be stuck at a time of 52 seconds.’ He was right. I am tall and therefore I had a very high frequency when I had fifteen steps between the hurdles. As a result, I was often completely empty on the last stretch.
The idea of the new stride rhythm was to have more left, especially on the last part.” How did you go about creating Femke 2.0? “First we started working on my stride length, those extra twelve centimeters. It was purely about the running feeling that comes with that new stride length. When that was a bit of an idea, we went to the fourteen steps between the hurdles. In the meantime, my legs had to get stronger because I always have to change the front leg during the hurdles.”
The first part of the story of Femke Bol comes from the double end-of-year issue of Helden. The last edition of 2023 is traditionally all about looking back on the past sporting year. Helden also visited England Nathan Ake, who won the league title, FA Cup and Champions League with Manchester City. He was interviewed and photographed together with his wife Kaylee, with whom he has been together since he was fifteen. The visit to the Schippers family. Dafne said goodbye to athletics and together with her parents, sister and brother she looked back on her impressive career.
In the 69ste edition of Heroes, numerous athletes who gave color to 2023 will have their say. Wout Poels looks back on stage victories in the Tour and Vuelta, but also on the loss of teammate Gino Mäder. Golden Sisters Bente and Lieke Rogge became world water polo champions together. Femke Kok crowned herself the first Dutch world champion in the 500 meters and shows herself in a way we have never seen her before. Karolien and Finn Florijn are blessed with great rowing genes, they both won World Cup gold; a double interview. Jeffrey Hoogland is king of the kilometer. He became world champion at ‘his’ distance for the fourth time and improved the world record. A candid conversation with the mileage eater.
Sailors packed further Bart Lambriex and Floris van de Werken a hat-trick of world titles. Speaking of sailing: Marit Bouwmeester returned after giving birth to her daughter in 2022 and immediately became European champion again. Feyenoord also became champions Lutsharel Geertruida had an important part in this. He tells his story. Joey Veerman won the KNVB Cup in 2023 and became a father. A conversation with the outspoken footballer about whom many people have an opinion.
Also a story about it Lionel Messi and the club he moved to last summer, David Beckham’s Inter Miami. A portrait of Carlos Alcarazthe new poster boy of tennis who beat Novak Djokovic in the final at Wimbledon in the match of the year. And finally it was for skating coach Kosta Poltavets and football coach Anoush Dastgir a difficult year, due to the situation in their native countries, Ukraine and Afghanistan.
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