While everyone in Athens was anticipating the medal rush of Michael Phelps, Pieter van den Hoogenband defended his Olympic title at the 100m free style with success. “It is the main swimming event”, he states. “At the 200m event I was defeated by Ian Thorpe, but I beat the American guy.” As if that wasn’t enough, the Dutchman also won the silver medal at the 100m free style relay. More than enough reason for the Dutch to elect him “Male athlete of the year”. The Dutch threefold Olympic champion was the guest of honor at the gala hosted by the Belgian sports press.
Q: What have you been up to these past few months, Pieter?
"Not much at the swimming pool, but I’ve been doing quite a few other things. First and foremost I’ve been savouring my success.''
Q: Savouring… How do you do that?
"I’m reminded daily of my medals, just by the thrill of it. At the Olympics in Sydney I won two gold medals and two bronze medals. I can’t say that it came out of the blue for me then, but this time I had worked towards this moment for four years. I thought to myself: “So you’re an Olympic champion. Now what?” I still have to outline the road ahead. If that road will lead to another Olympic title and two more silver medals, then that’s amazing. I’m more in control of what happens next than four years ago. I took a lot more time to celebrate this success with the people closest to me.”
Q: Your second Olympic title seemed a lot harder to win than your first one. You still intend to win a third gold medal at the 100m free style in 2008.
"That’s the nature of the beast, I’m afraid. I never look for the easy way out. Of course I could leave it at this. But I know I can still do it, eventhough I’m getting older. Swimming is not a contact sport. If you get injuries, it’s because of too much strain. I don’t have that problem. Winning the gold at the 100m free style three consecutive times has never been done by anyone. I think it’s a huge challenge to try and do that. I just want to end my sports career right there and then. Give it my all one more time and then move on to something else.''
Q: Like what?
"I have no clue right now. We’ll see."
Q: Did it bother you that you lost the 200m free style event, which was announced as “The Race of the Century”? Ian Thorpe won the race before you and Michael Phelps.
"I was glad I beat the American guy. I think it was all hyped a bit too much. People who follow the sport, know that the 100m event is historically the main event. Because the Americans didn’t have a proper candidate for the event, they suddenly shifted their attention to the 200m event. I don’t get that. It’s just that the Americans had Phelps and the Australians had Thorpe. And these two would clash at the 200m event. I was right up there with them. Prior to the race I thought I would be able to win it. That’s why I started below the world record. I wanted to show them who they were up against. I lost the race in the final end of the race, but I think I can do better in the future."
Q: Wasn’t the 200m event a ‘battle of the giants’ more than anything else?
"I guess, but the 100m finalists were quite impressive too. Ian Thorpe was there, Roland Mark Schoeman is a force to be reckoned with and Filippo Magnini beat me at the European Championships. It was the fastest field ever. When you win that race, it’s quite an accomplishment. At the 200m event there were Phelps, Thorpe and Hackett. That’s what made that race so exciting. I also had made a name for myself when beating Thorpe at the 200m event in Sydney. I noticed that especially the Americans wanted to make that race more special. A lot of people who don’t know anything about swimming were meddling in. That changed the perspective, but it was still a great race. It was blood-curdling. I had set the pace, but Thorpe beat me in the nick of time. Phelps came in third."
Q: It seems like you don’t like Phelps very much.
"Let’s face it, he was the star of the tournament. What he did was impressive, but I’m one of the few who was faster than him."
Q: In preparation of the Olympics, you didn’t perform as well as before at the European Championships. Did you ever doubt yourself?
"At the European Championships I was mentally so strong that, no matter the results, I knew I was going to win the Olympic title. I was training so hard for Athens, that I lost the 100m at the European Championships.”
Q: To peak for that one minute every four years. That must be a lot of stress. How do you handle that?
"I live for that. I was at the Olympics in 1996. I came in fourth twice. At the 100m and 200m, 0.11 seconds behind third place. That’s when I knew: “This is it!” The Olympic finals. I love it! Stress? I enjoy it to the fullest. I think that’s what I’d miss most when I end my career."
Q: Fourth place twice. Is that discouraging or not?
"Because of Atlanta I’m the athlete I am today. I learned so much from that. I came out of the blue and came in fourth at the 100m finals at 49.13 seconds, that’s quite impressive. Only insiders knew it was a unique performance. When all medalists were invited by the Queen, I was sitting at home. That’s when I thought: “Never again. I will do anything to win a medal next time.”
Q: Now you’re facing another four years of training and hard work for that next race, which will be over in less than a minute.
"I love it! The ultimate goal is 47 seconds. Before the Olympics I was making that limit at the training. I was so sure I would break my own world record, but it didn’t happen in the end. But I know I can do it. Proving to yourself and the rest of the world that you can go even faster, that's what's so great about sports. No-one is going to take away those Olympic titles, but I am the world record holder. The fastest man on the planet… There are a lot of guys who want to break that record. It would be great if I could that myself."
Q: Do you focus a lot on those records?
"You know, I’m the first and only man who ever swam faster than 48 seconds at the 100m event. They’ll never take that away from me. That’s what makes that record so special. I think it will be a little while longer before we can move on to the next step, to beat the 47 second mark. I’ve held the record for almost four and a half years and no-one has beaten the 48 second mark. We’ll see.”
Q: Ian Thorpe is considering a sabbatical year. How about you?
"I don’t. I’ve taken a long break after the Olympics, that’s enough. Perhaps he feels like he needs it, but I can’t wait for the season to start."
Q: Thorpe is making three million Euro per year. Do you feel you’re rewarded enough?
"It's very rewarding for me. But that’s not why I started swimming. Once you get hooked on the sport, you don’t think about what money you can make doing it. I can't complain about my situation, I've done OK for myself. When I end my swimming career, I can do whatever I like."
Q: Has Thorpe become a close friend by now?
"We get along great, but at the swimming pool I want to beat everyone. Outside of the swimming pool we have a lot in common. We often have a lot of fun, but we don’t see or talk to each other every week."
(December 31st, 2004)
Also read other interviews with Pieter van den Hoogenband:
- King of the swimming pool once again
- Van den Hoogenband is still savouring his victory