‘It’s about the impact you make’

| Jennifer Cutinha

This year’s Bedrijvendagen lunch lecture was given by Dutch swimmer and Olympic gold medallist Maarten van der Weijden, today at the Waaier. He spoke about becoming an Olympic champion and his personal struggles in dealing with cancer.

Photo by: Arjan Reef

Van der Weijden’s perspective on life changed when he was diagnosed with leukaemia, in 2001. ‘I was always used to setting goals for myself. Whether it was achieving the highest grades in school or being good at swimming. In the hospital bed, all of this suddenly did not make any sense, since I didn’t know if I would live longer. I made a promise that if I would survive this, I would live everyday as it were my last day.’

This promise, however, did not stick long with him. ‘Living this way turned out to be quite monotonous for me. So, I started making goals for myself – to start swimming again.’

Olympic journey

‘I recall my coach asking me the year before the Beijing Olympics if I believed I had what it takes to be an Olympic Champion. At that time, I said ‘yes’ with hesitance since I knew I wasn’t the fastest swimmer.’ Choosing to participate in the Olympics meant a lot of tough choices for Van der Weijden. ‘At the time, I was doing a mathematical study at the University of Utrecht, in addition to seven hours of training every day. The decision to convince my father into pursuing swimming full time was hard. Friends and family will always have opinions and ideas, but you have to choose the path that will be most impactful for you.’

He admitted to the struggles of waking up early in the morning for which he would have to wear light goggles that would shock his body into waking up. ‘My energy and my speed were the worst in the morning. So besides high-altitude training, I also had to get accustomed to early morning trainings since the Olympic race would be held in the morning. I always had difficulty explaining to people why I still loved this way of living, despite how challenging it sounds. But the main reason was, perhaps, that I now had a real purpose in life.’


Van der Weijden attributes some of his success also to luck. ‘I dislike it when there are public announcements about my Olympic win being a consequence of my cancer struggle. This appears as if I fought incredibly hard as a cancer patient.’

Maarten admits to being a lazy patient which even got doctors worried during his cancer treatment days. ‘I refused to train on the home trainer while my roommates were quite enthusiastic to exercise and get better. The fact that I survived – and they didn’t – make me despise these public statements even more. Of course, hard work and determination plays a huge role, but luck is also definitely involved to a large extent.’

Moreover, he admits, ‘the real reason for my win was that instead of having a normal lung weight comparable to 6 litres, my lung weight was comparable to 12 litres. This resulted in me floating higher above the water and having less drag, making me swim faster.’  


Last year, Van der Weijden completed the Elfstedentocht, by swimming 200 kilometres. ‘I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to swim it during the first attempt (a year earlier, ed.). But I was happy about the 5 million euros that was raised for charity as a consequence. Therefore, I decided to take it up again, not because I wanted to be successful, but because of the impact it would make in raising money for cancer research. It’s not about yourself, but about the impact you make.’