They have one goal, one boat, one team. For months, they were up before dawn so they could train, drank no alcohol, watched what they ate, skipped going to parties, and went to bed on time. Then on 12 March, there were the words by minister Bruno Bruins during the COVID-19 press conference: “All events with more than a hundred people have been cancelled throughout the Netherlands.” It is two days before the Heineken rowing four-event competition on the river Amstel – the time to see how Saurus’s women’s eight are doing. A good three weeks after that, on 5 April, there is the Varsity on the Amsterdam-Rijn canal near Houten, the first competition of the new season, written in capital letters on the rowing calendar.
It’s raining cats and dogs outside. It is just after nine on the evening of Monday 18 November. All the teams that have just been formed for competitions with their coaches have gone to eat in town. They just heard yesterday that they have been chosen after three weeks of selection training. At about nine-thirty, they will present themselves to the rest of the club in the pub of the Saurus complex. Little by little, the hall fills up with surprisingly happy Saurians; their wet clothes don’t take away from the fun. At precisely nine-thirty the music starts: ‘Summer of ’69’ by Bryan Adams is the first song. “Those were the best days of my life,” he sings. Whether that is the case, we will see in the next rowing season.
It turns ten o’clock, ten-thirty. Still no competition teams to be seen. Have they gotten cold feet? “Dinner took longer than intended,” says Saurus chairperson Rosalie Bovy. Less than five minutes later, the first team climbs on the bar. It’s up to the boyo, the youngest of the team, to introduce the team. That is not always an easy task: not only is it difficult to make oneself heard above the bustle, the names can also pose a problem. The teams, after all, have just been made official. After every introduction, chairperson Rosalie starts off the Saurus song and all those present join in – even the internationals – and sing at the top of their voices. Before a team is allowed to leave the bar, they have to quickly down a beer. The third team is the first-year women’s eight. Eight girls and a guy, the little coxswain. ‘Little’, because a number of the rowers are taller than he is. Of the 26 athletes competing for a place, these were the last eight remaining. Boyo Rinske introduces them and after downing their beers they get off the bar. Parties, late nights: it is allowed now. The time up to Christmas will mainly be learning to row and getting used to each other in order to become a team.
“Perfect rowing weather”
We are one month later. Things are not going so well with Rinske’s knee. She is not in the boat today, but is riding her bicycle on the canal path keeping up with the boat. There is no wind. “Perfect rowing weather,” Rinske concludes. At fixed places, Saurus coach Alexander Pennings (one of the team’s four coaches) stops the boat to give some tips. The perfect moment for the rowers to have a drink of water. “Focus on the first and third stop,” Alexander shouts from the bank. Chinese to a layman, but the women nod. Even Line, from Germany, who seems to understand the Dutch just fine. “I understand most. I’m doing a Dutch class,” she says after the training. Anne-Fleur agrees with her: “She usually speaks English, but in the group chat she does a lot in Dutch.”
“Wat is jouw naam?”, the Spanish coxswain Max asks. “Mijn naam is Line. Ik ben negentien”. That is as far as his Dutch goes, Max laughs. He understands “the rowing stuff”, but otherwise he only speaks English. He stopped taking the Dutch lessons. He felt it was too difficult for a Spanish-speaking person. Paula, from Germany, listens to the two talking and says she understands most of it. She herself speaks Chinese at a B2 level; the leap from German to Dutch is then a minor one. “Tot ziens” is the most important, she says. “I say it every time I leave a store.” Kristina: “Ik kom uit Duitsland. Ik heb zes jaars in Hamburg gewoond en ik ga veel Nederlands leren in deze team.” Not quite faultless, but she has the courage, and every Dutch person will understand exactly what she means.
Every Wednesday event, the team members eat together. Today, on 12 February, we are with Max, who lives in the high tower of the UM Guesthouse. Since 11 January, they are ‘in training’. This means, no alcohol, eight training sessions per week, no parties, at least eight hours of sleep and a strict diet. “I’m a picky eater,” says Paula. “I don’t diverse enough”. That also appears from the food diary that they all keep. The team eldest Kristina keeps an eye on everyone around the table, including me, to see if everybody eats enough of the home-made pasta salads. A vegan one for Line, who is a vegetarian and lactose-intolerant, and one with sausage. “We are pasta salad experts,” they laugh.
Then there is a power failure. “I guess we have to eat in the dark,” says Max. After candles have been lit, the talk turns to Saurus’ physiotherapist, who is terribly handsome, according to Paula. Rinske: “It’s for free Paula, you can go.” Laughter. Anne-Fleur’s brother also appears to be an attractive guy. She ‘simply has to’ pull out her phone to show him. Meanwhile, Paula is scrolling through the Grindr app on Max’s phone with interest. Don’t be shocked by the pictures added to some of the profiles, he warns.
Time for more serious business. This weekend, they will be rowing in Delft. “Remember,” Rinske says, “Don’t forget to bring your passport.” Who will be sleeping where and what to do about transport? While most of the team is involved in animated talks, Anne-Fleur is quiet. She cannot take part, because of an inflamed tendon in the back of her knee. “The next match will be in four weeks’ time. I hope to be able to join then.”
How did things go in Delft? They were twelfth, of sixteen. “Everyone was super eager and excited. We wanted it so much that we were a little sloppy at times,” Brecht analyses. Nevertheless, “great” for a first match.
Rowing without shoes
A week later, the morning training session. In the distance, an enormous barge is approaching. It is Max’s responsibility to steer the boat safely around it. Max is an excellent cox, the entire team agrees. But it is exactly in situations like this when he gets a little stressed. According to the rules, he should pass the boat on the right-hand side, but the ship is leaving much more room on the left. What to do? The enormous colossus is getting closer and closer. Max decides to go for the left, coach Alistair Hannaford raises her eyebrows, but no reason for worries, everything goes well.
The tall (1.80m) Lea Nettemann (20) is in the boat today. She is the designated substitute. Lea dropped out with an injury after two weeks of selection training. At home in Luxemburg, she studied classical ballet for years. “I’m used to working with my legs, but not with my upper body: my arms turned blue and I got cramps.”
The British Alistair was a coach in the United Kingdom for a number of years. Together with Anne-Fleur – who was still troubled by her tendon, but attends practically every training session – he cycles with them along the Zuid-Willemsvaart. Some of the women lean back too much, he feels. At the lock, one of the ‘fixed’ stops, he takes action: they need to take their feet from the screwed-down shoes; that will prevent them from leaning back too far. “The beginning of the training was a little rough, but the end was very strong,” concludes a satisfied coach after the session.
“Eat well? Slept well?,” coach Wies van der Heijden asks a tense Berber, Emma and Rinske on Wednesday morning, 4 March. Today is the day of the infamous ergometer test. It is the three’s turn this morning; the others will follow this afternoon. The coaches have observed the team closely the past few months, collected data and on the basis of those determined a so-called personal target time for the two kilometres on the ergometer, Wies explains. The stronger the rower, the lower the target time. Anne-Fleur has the lowest and should therefore be the fastest, but she is still injured. Rinske: “People always make a big deal of it. I’m totally nervous.” Emma, the most experienced rower of the team, seems the calmest: “I’ve slept well, really chill.” Wies puts on an ergo tune. Max enters to support his team. “Should I wear those knee protectors or not?,” Rinske hesitates. “I’ll think I will.” The rowers sit down and listen to the final instructions from Wies: “The first 1,200 metres, you should try to stick to your ‘target’ as smoothly as possible. The next 500 metres, you should definitely not exceed it, and the last 300 metres you will put on a spurt. Any questions?” Just to be sure, Rinske repeats the entire procedure. And are they allowed a brief visit to the toilet? Wies: “Quickly! Otherwise you will cool down too much.”
“Place your feet! Hands on! Saurus attention, GO!” The rowers start with tremendous force. “The first 200 metres have been completed. Looking good,” says Wies. A little later: “You have all passed the halfway mark. So now nothing below your target time anymore,” Wies shouts. “Get ready for the final spurt.” Max is sitting on the side, holding his breath. “All out, give it your all,” Wies shouts. Heavy breathing, sweat and red heads in the corridor afterwards. “It gives me a headache,” Berber says. But at the end of the day, the worst is over and they all passed their target times by a wide margin.
COVID-19 press conference
“Four months of daily training sessions. That’s not always fun,” sighs Brecht on the phone on Friday morning, 13 March. “You want to see something in return, we were finally going to row a match together again.” Yesterday evening, after the training, there was the first COVID-19 press conference. The training session was good, it went well, we were ready for it. But all events involving more than a hundred are cancelled, the minister said. Brecht: “The Varsity will not take place either.” She was with Berber when she heard it. “We were both quiet, felt absolutely awful. What have we done the past four months?” They are on the train to Breda to collect her ‘puffer’ from home, because “we have decided to keep training.” At three o’clock, she sends a WhatsApp message: “Update: Saurus is closed until 31 March, even for training.”
As the COVID measures across Europe are getting stricter, most of the team goes home. They do decide to continue training with home schedule and on the ergometer until at least 6 April. And drinking is still banned. Until 1 June, all major events have been cancelled and on 5 July, there is the last match of the season. So, there is still a chance they may get into the boat. But on the sixth of April, the curtain falls.
“When that first match was cancelled, I had totally had it,” Emma says at the end of June. “Now I look back on four cold, but very nice training months. I don’t regret it.” More than two months after the team ceased training, they are still seeing each other regularly. “We try to eat together with those who are in Maastricht, once a week,” says Emma. “We also take skiff classes together [a single-person scull, ed.]. That is one of the things that is allowed.” Most of them want to try and make the selection again next year. Brecht, Emma, Berber, Paula and Rinske will do so anyway. Anne-Fleur and Line are in doubt, while Kristina will complete her master’s this academic year.