Besides the obvious pursuits such as propping up the bar or doing a job on the side, first year students can also set their sights higher – at top-level sport. There are several sports in which you can still get a long way if you start now. It takes quite a sacrifice, but that is outweighed by the rewards, according to highflying sporty students themselves. ‘You find out what you are made of.’
If their stories are music to your ears, it is not too late. For sports that depend on stamina or physical strength, such as cycle-racing, athletics, rowing and boxing, you really do not have to have been pumping iron since your infancy to make it to the top, say the experts. In fact, 'the real strength and toughness you need for rowing only come when you are fully grown', says rowing coach Carlijn Wentink.
That you can get a long way in four years has been demonstrated by Annemiek van Vleuten. She started cycling as a fourth year student of Animal Sciences in 2006. It was one of the few sports she could still do with the knee injury she picked up playing football. This year the now graduate cyclist with the Nederland Bloeit team won a tough French round, among other races. And on 2 October she will be off again, at the World Cup in Melbourne.
Besides iron discipline, good nutrition and a passion for challenges, the main thing is to really enjoy cycling, says Van Vleuten. 'I enjoy every circuit and every training session. And now that this year for the first time I don't have to study or work alongside my sport, it feels like one big holiday.' You learn a lot from it too, she thinks. 'Like working in a team and coping with setbacks. Not to mention packing and unpacking your bags: so far in 2010, I've been abroad almost as much as I've been at home.'
Geert van der Sanden wishes he was away that much. He had to abandon his cycling career six months ago when he was diagnosed with glandular fever. Van der Sanden can pinpoint exactly what he misses: the feeling of giving it everything you've got and putting yourself through the mill. 'It is wonderful to be active, to improve your body and to work on your tactics. Of course it is also tiring and it isn't fun all the time. But I would certainly love to race again.' He used to spend 25 to 30 hours on his sport, and often travelled to other parts of Europe for races.
Wageningen is a Mecca for keen athletes: it has forest, a synthetic athletics track and a gym, and Papendal sports centre is at cycling distance. But more important than all this is what you bring into it yourself, says trainer Tonnie Dirks. And that is discipline and stamina. 'So: no running student activities and no nightlife every week.' Not everyone is cut out for it, he says, what with the mental strain of training hard year in year out. Certainly not when faced with injuries or periods of not making progress. But if you get far, you get more out of it than you gave up for it, thinks Dirks. 'Titles and lots of foreign trips and contacts - you widen your horizons. It is fantastic to be the best, to stand out from the crowd and to push out your own boundaries. When you make progress, you have earned it yourself.'
Dirks pushes his runners to achieve, but it can get much worse than that, as first-year student of Nutrition and Health Marlou Bijlsma discovered last year when she had a scholarship to study in the United States. On weekdays there, it was train, school, train, study, with meals and showers fitted in between. 'On the one hand, it was wonderful to be working on sport every day among athletes from all over the world. But they do have a different attitude to sport in the US. There is lots of pushing at the start of a race, and screaming coaches. After a bad race a coach didn't speak to me for a week, although I had really done my best. I tried to learn from it, above all, and to identify why it went wrong. You have to keep on looking at it positively, otherwise you won't get anywhere.'
In the end it didn't do much for her running either. Now that she is back in the Netherlands and only training five times a week, she is feeling much better. A good lesson learned: 'Plenty of rest is at least as important as plenty of training.
Sports you can still get to the top in as a student
- Athletics, both track and field events. You will reach peak form later than if you had started as a child
- Boxing. Good for physical and mental relief. The road to the top is shorter for ladies than for men.
- Rowing. Essentially a simple movement, and it's all about strength and stamina. You can start training intensively quite quickly without getting burnt out.
- Cycle-racing. For people who are able to practise alone for long periods in all weathers, and who are not afraid of riding in a pack.
- Alternatively, go for a minority sport such as Frisbee or unihockey (a kind of indoor ice hockey). They have Dutch teams too and play abroad.
'Boxing is an unnatural sport, actually', says Marieke Buffing. 'You would prefer to run away from a fight.' But for this student of Biotechnology, that was no reason to opt out. On the contrary, Buffing is a regular fixture at top national student boxing events. This year, sadly, she saw her chances of entering the national student championships fade after a shoulder injury, but next year she hopes to be on board again.
She was initially attracted to the sport because she noticed it made her 'superfit'. 'When I moved house I could lift heavier weights than I expected.' Gradually she found herself in the competition circuit. 'Boxing is a sport in which you can easily extend your boundaries: the feeling that you can still go on a bit longer, since you are already tired out anyway. I'm not the type to say 'Oh, leave it then' either. I want to win. Boxing training is also the only way I can really relax properly.'
Ex-student of Biotechnology Tom Meekhof has already passed that phase. Four years ago, he was boxing at competition level for a while - and he was fifteen kilos lighter. 'I trained extra hard to get into a lighter weight class, and I had sunken cheekbones.'
Now his training group has broken up and boxing is on the back burner. But he can still remember exactly how it felt. Competitive boxing felt like a test of character: would he be afraid? Meekhof passed the test with flying colours. 'The fact that you get hit motivates you to hit back.'
'It's true that you find out what you are capable of yourself', says Frank van Geessink at the Sports centre. 'You have to have the nerve to dig deep, because you do expose yourself. An all-round boxer has a combination of willpower and strength.'
'Take up rowing if you think you will get some fun and satisfaction out of it, if you think you can learn from it, and if you are not afraid.' That is the view of Jolmer van der Sluis, the Argo rower who has been making a living from his sport for four years now. In 2009 his lightweight eight came third in the world championships.
He gave up studying long ago. 'You have to be able to focus obsessively on one thing like a maniac. In an intensive training season I train sixteen times a week. Then life is just rowing, eating, and going to bed at ten at night. I want to get better myself and to beat other people. Fighting on when your body says 'stop' - it's a case of the one who keeps going longest wins. And it is also just a nice game. There you all are, six boats at the starting line and you all try to reach the finish line first.'
Rowing coach Carlijn Wentink knows what you need if you are to get far too: to enjoy it, to be willing to train hard, and to put rowing first. Everything has to be right: your strength, build, technique and mentality. 'Hard practice isn't always fun. Sometimes it hurts: sore legs, blisters on your hands, and if it doesn't go smoothly you come up against your mental limits too. But the excitement from the start makes it all worthwhile. And when you feel the boat gaining speed, that gives you a tremendous kick.
Support for top sport
In collaboration with the student deans, the Bongerd Sport Centre offers support for sportsmen and women who participate in national or regional trainings or have A, B or HP status from the Dutch Olympics committee, the NOC*NSF. This ranges from help with rescheduling exams to a VPN connection enabling you to log in to the library from abroad. Those studying at Wageningen University with a Dutch grant can get an extra year's support from the university (through the FOS system).
More information can be obtained from Henri ten Klooster, head of the Bongerd Sports Centre (firstname.lastname@example.org).