Athlete of the Month - February 2017
Photo: Merijn Soeters/KNRB
Maaike Head, of the Netherlands won gold in the lightweight women’s double sculls at the Rio Olympics – a dream come true. The 33-year-old is now taking some time off from rowing to focus on her career as a doctor. She tells us how she started life as a skater and how her next training goal is not on the water.
World Rowing: Why did you choose rowing as a sport to do at the top level?
Maaike Head: I started a totally different sport when I was nine - speed skating. For 12 years I trained and raced all over the world to try and make it to world level. I did compete at the junior world championships, but when I turned 21 I decided it was time to start my medical studies in Rotterdam. I came into contact with rowing accidentally when I was looking for a student club to join during my first week. My first coaches urged me to start training in the competitive group and within three weeks I was hooked.
WR: Did you ever consider other sports?
MH: When I quit speed skating I did think of cycling professionally but the moment I stepped into a boat that idea was gone.
WR: What is the best thing about rowing?
MH: That’s a difficult question. It's the whole picture actually. Being outside, regardless of the weather, I always feel better after I have been training in the open air. I enjoy the fact that rowing asks you to push all limits. Due to the extensive training, it makes you incredibly fit. Because rowing is my second career I can compare it to other sport environments. I must admit that I like the rowing community very much - the tradition, the atmosphere around races and rowing clubs. It suits me very well.
WR: What is most challenging?
MH: Keeping the technique perfect under all conditions. Last year we trained on bumpy water a lot to be prepared for Rio. This wasn't always easy, but it did teach us to keep on doing our own thing whatever happens. Pushing myself to the limit physically is one of my greater talents, but doing it in a subtle way with good technique is harder.
WR: Can you describe your experience at Rio?
MH: Rio was everything I ever dreamed of. Since I was nine I dreamed of going to the Olympics and winning a medal. After I competed in London 2012 the feeling became even stronger. The way to Rio didn't go anything close to smoothly. I had to qualify through the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta and I broke my ribs in April when I fell off my bike. After overcoming all of that, our races in Rio felt so under control that I could enjoy the power we had. After winning the final, there was a mixture of many feelings. I was very happy, proud of our team, relieved because we performed to our standard and even a little bit sad that is was over.
WR: You really improved to the next level in the double in 2016. What changed?
MH: We needed the time to grow stronger together. Before the worlds in 2015, the time was too short. After we came 14th we had a chat and said to each other that we still had faith in our combination. We made a plan to make it work and trained really hard to actually make it work. During the year, we were so dedicated and so extremely focused on our goal. Because of my age, it might well have been my last chance of going to the Olympics and winning a medal so there was no one that was going to hold me back.
By the time the season started we were physically stronger than we had ever been and we knew how to race to get the best out of each other. We made a plan and stuck to it. There was never any discussion because it had all been thought out before. We were very cool because of that. The only thing we had to do was execute the plan.
WR: What’s different about rowing in the double compared with the quad?
MH: The quad is marvellous to race in because it is so fast compared to the double. In the end I think I am more of a double person because it feels like you have more influence on what happens in the boat. For us the quad was a great learning experience and a great way to build a group of strong lightweight women as a basis for the double.
WR: What is your training like at the moment?
MH: I am not rowing that much at the moment. I am taking a sabbatical. I am a medical doctor and have to work to keep my licence. Right now I am working at the Emergency Department of the Academic Hospital in Amsterdam and, from April, I will be working in the surgical department. Because of the hard work and night shifts, it is hard to combine work with being a professional rower. At this moment I am running a lot. My goal is to run a half marathon in 1 hour and 25 minutes. It is easier to combine running with work than rowing with work. I’m not ruling out getting back to rowing after this season though.
WR: What do you do for fun?
MH: Travelling! I love to hike in the Swiss mountains and cycle in the French Alps. Besides training (which I do for fun) I love to enjoy all the good things Amsterdam has to offer - museums, concerts, going out with friends - all the things I didn't have time for the last four to eight years.
WR: Where is your favourite place to row?
MH: Bled is the prettiest place I ever rowed in. But there are so many places where I have a lot of good memories that it is hard to decide between Bled, Varese, Lucerne, Avis and Montebelo.
WR: What’s the best advice you ever had?
MH: “Row with faith in your own strength and the plan we made.” For me this made a great difference in the way I raced and gave me power to race well until the boat was over the finish line rather than trying too hard and dying along the way.