Everything will be focussed on Beijing
What are three Olympic titles worth when you're on the operation table, waiting for your anaesthetics? "Absolutely nothing", says Pieter van den Hoogenband. "There’s nothing more important at that moment, except the wish for the operation to be successful."
What seemed to be a harmless muscle strain last March at the Open Flemish Championships in Antwerp, which could be a side effect of resuming his training after the Olympics, appeared to be a hernia between the fourth and fifth vertebra. The day after the diagnosis, Van den Hoogenband was operated on by neurosurgeon Wilco Peul. Another vertebra showed some wear as well, but it didn't need any surgery.
"Normally, a hernia is treated with rest and physical therapy, but my situation was too severe. The pain in my back and the radiation to my left foot were unbearable. During training in the pool it didn’t bother me too much. But as soon as I got home, I couldn’t move. Walking from my car to the front door was virtually impossible, because of the pain in my back and the pins-and-needles in my foot. At home I could only lie on the couch. The last three days before the operation I walked 25 metres at most."
Now he’s been reliefed of hellish pains after more than two months, he is thoroughly enjoying a 15-minute walk in the woods. "Who knew?", he laughs. "I never knew taking a stroll would be so pleasant."
From the moment he will enter the pool again today, it will be a constant evaluation till the Olympics of 2008 in Beijing. The question is whether or not he will be ready to enter the World Championships in Montreal end of July. And if he does, it remains to be seen if he will actually start on four distances (100m and 200m freestyle, 4 x 100m and 4 x 200m freestyle relay).
"The way things are now, I doubt I will be making twelve starts (series, semi-finals, finals per event) with two months to go from now. I will have to take good care of my body in the next few years. Squatting with 180 kilos in my neck or bench pressing is not an option for the time being. Luckily I can also do power training in the water."
He still hopes to win a third consecutive Olympic title at the 100m freestyle event. "But everything in my career, as from today, will be focussed on Beijing." His mission is not impossible. "When you think about it, I’ve been very lucky throughout my career regarding injuries. I’ve been in the top 4 of the world for the last nine years. This is, after a shoulder injury right before the Olympics in Sydney, only my second major setback. I consider it a signal of my body to take a step back."
The World Championships in Montreal, the European Championships in Helsinki and the World Championships of 2007 in Melbourne – the few major tournaments VDH will enter in the last phase of his career – don’t hold a candle against the Olympics. Even his dream of winning a world title will have to be sacrificed, if needed.
"If it turns out that it’s better for the long term not to go to Montreal, I won’t go. You have to be efficient with the remaining opportunities. Perhaps this will be a good moment in time to, besides on the 100m freestyle, definitely focus on the 50m freestyle instead of the 200m. But that’s too soon to tell. I don’t know yet where I stand in any case."