Thursday, January 13, 2005

King of the swimming pool once again

ATHENS 2004 – For a short moment you could hear a pin drop at the Olympic swimming pool of Athens. Then a primal scream came from Pieter van den Hoogenband, who had just beaten Roland Mark Schoeman by a split second at the blood-curdling 100 metre free style finals.

After the American Duke P. Kahanamoku (1912 and 1920), Johnny 'Tarzan' Weismuller (1924 and 1928) and 'Czar' Alexander Popov (1992 and 1996), Van den Hoogenband is only the fourth swimmer in the history of the Olympics who defended his title at the 100 metre free style event with success.

Van den Hoogenband wrote history in one of the most thrilling Olympic swimming finals ever. He was behind for most of the race, but he finished 0.06 seconds ahead of Roland Mark Schoeman, in 48.17 seconds. Twelve centimetres ahead at 100 metres. Ian Thorpe surprisingly collected the bronze medal in this event.

Van den Hoogenband’s release was enormous. With clinched fists he celebrated his victory. It was now or never and that was something the defending Olympic Champion had realized before the race like no-one else. Some swimming legends hadn’t qualified for the finals, so all eyes were on him. After his great success at the Olympics of Sydney he had never won a world title again at a major meet. But just in time he rose to the occasion. ''This is the real thing,'' he cheered. And: ''I’m absolutely nuts. I live for these kinds of thrills. It can’t get crazy enough for me.''

Van den Hoogenband relives the final minutes before the race. ''I walked to the waiting area and I got goose bumps all over. This is what I’ve been training for. For that feeling, that tension. I was sitting on a chair. It was a beautiful evening. A great opportunity to give it my all. I saw the Dutch fans in the bleachers; it was as if I were at the regional championships back home. And then suddenly I saw my trainer Jacco Verhaeren’s face on the big screen. It was noisy and I had to stay calm. I dove in, swam the first fifty metres holding back and then I just went for the kill. All systems go with every fibre of my body and being. I finished and thought: “Please!” The camera zoomed in on me and only then I knew I had made it. Super.''

He laughs and says jokingly: "Actually it was a piece of cake.''

After the race, coach Jacco Verhaeren smoked a cigarette under the bleachers. To him the victory of his pupil and friend was also a huge relief. Van den Hoogenband still had it. Verhaeren told everyone who would listen these past few years, but by now they had to cash down.

''Pieter's release really got to me,'' he said. ''I had never seen him react like that before. He wanted to prove so badly he could still win the gold.''

The man to beat in the finals was, as expected, Roland Mark Schoeman. The South African took off at an amazing speed and was well ahead of Van den Hoogenband halfway (22.60 by 23.27 seconds). A lot more than expected. Van den Hoogenband stayed calm and swam his own race, never outplaying his hand. The race was won in the final fifteen metres and Van den Hoogenband got the ultimate reward for his strategy. ''It was a fantastic race, by the book,'' concluded Verhaeren.

Source: Het Parool (August 19th, 2004)

Also read other interviews with Pieter van den Hoogenband:

- Pieter van den Hoogenband is not satisfied yet

- Van den Hoogenband is still savouring his victory


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