Sibling duos often dominate in small boats. Paul and Gary O’Donovan of Ireland have become worldwide sensations in the lightweight men’s double sculls. Martin and Valent Sinkovic have done the seemingly impossible, becoming world champions in the men’s quadruple sculls before adding the men’s pair and men’s double sculls to their list. The Chilean sisters, Melita and Antonia Abraham made history by becoming the first Chilean crew to win a medal at a world championship event.

The three Paulis sisters from the Netherlands, Ilse, Bente and Femke, break the mould in a unique way.

In 2018, each of them won a medal at World Rowing Championship events: junior, under-23 and senior.  So what did mum and dad put in the cereal?

“I got contaminated with the virus first,” Ilse laughs, “and then I spread it throughout the family.”

At just 25 years old, Ilse has already attained the highest possible achievement in rowing: Olympic gold. She also holds the World Best Time in both the lightweight women’s quadruple sculls and the lightweight women’s double sculls. Her success motivates her two sisters.

“When I saw the [Olympic] gold around her neck, I thought, yeah I want that as well,” Bente says. “I never felt like I had to row, but it just became possible. You see your sister doing it and it motivates you.” Bente is four years younger than Ilse. She started competing internationally back in 2013 at the junior championships, but this was her first year on the podium, scoring a silver medal in the under-23 women’s quad.

The youngest is Femke and at just 18 years old, she still gets called the “mini” by her sisters.

“I was just dragged to all the races,” Femke laughs. “So then I got into a boat, and it was so nice, I didn’t want to stop.” Femke has already competed in three junior world championships. This year she made it to the podium, earning a bronze in the junior women’s quad.

It can be intimidating to fill the shoes of a successful older sibling, but these three have found their own way of handling it. Ilse takes the role of proud older sister, nervously watching her sisters’ races at the world championships.

“With Bente I had tears in my eyes,” she says, “and with Femke I was shouting at the computer. I really lived it with them.”

Bente and Femke have to cope with the pressure of being ‘Ilse’s little sisters.’

“Sometimes it annoying,” Femke smiles, “but we are proud of her, so it’s not that. I add pressure for myself because I have two older sisters who perform well. I still don’t know if it’s actually true that the outside world expects it from you.”

Individually they have each found their own way of dealing with things and identified their own strength.

“Femke has the discipline, Bente the most perseverance and I am the most competitive one,” Ilse says. Her sisters laugh and joke that she is competitive in everything – even playing a game or walking up a set of stairs. But Ilse says, “there must be a good set of genes somewhere.”

The three of them cite a good combination of their two parents as the key to their success. “It’s the athleticism from our dad and the fanatics we get from our mum. That came together,” Ilse says. And probably, the non-stop rowing talk at home played a role as well.

Their futures will continue to differentiate the sisters. Ilse is becoming a medical doctor and wants to focus on the results-driven surgery track. She currently aims for Tokyo 2020 in the lightweight women’s double, together with partner Marieke Keijser.

Bente is also studying medicine, but prefers to stay outside the hospital and potentially be a general practitioner. She rows openweight and will look to gain more experience before 2020, while keeping an eye on the 2024 Olympics.

And Femke? She is heading to the United States where she plans to study something other than medicine at Rutgers University. As a lightweight, Femke doubts that she will be able to make the lightweight double for 2020. But as a true athlete, when asked if she would rather row with her sister or Keijser in 2024, she says, “with whoever goes fastest.”