Connect with Us:  

Dutch Cancer Comeback Hero Takes Marathon

Aug 21, 2008  - Craig Lord

Maarten van der Weijden (NED), the open water swimmer who recovered from cancer, made a comeback and is now Olympic champion after a gigantic tussle with David Davies (GBR) and THomas Lurz (GER) in the closing kilometre of the race.

Van Der Weijden, 27 and a monster of the waves at 6ft 7, was just 20 when he was diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukaemia. Given only a slim chance of survival, his treatment included chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. His story is one has led to comparisons with Lance Armstrong, the US cyclist who suffered testicular cancer and after recovering took the Tour de France by storm. On some levels, the comparison works, though the Dutchman himself notes differences.

He relied less on physical size, however, than the magnitude of his mental capacity to deal with pain, pay attention to detail and draw of experience. “The pain and fatigue that you feel in the water is what I went through for a whole year to beat the cancer, so, I know what to expect.”  Given a new lease of life, Van der Weijden leaves nothing to chance. He has spent his nights in Beijing sleeping in a low-oxygen tent in his room at the Olympic Village to simulate high-altitude conditions and wearing glasses fitted with lights that wake him up fast and help him to produce naturally what the Dutch team doctor described as “higher levels of cortisone” and conquer pain. 

Cees-Rijn van den Hoogenband, the Dutch team doctor and father of the marathon champion’s best friend, Pieter, the 100m Olympic champion of 2000 and 2004 said that teammates had constantly teased Van der Weijden for sleeping in a high-altitude tent. “We are always joking with Maarten: ‘go back to your tent, dog, get back in your kennel’. But he will do what it takes to win, like Pieter. When Pieter said ‘goodnight, see you at nine’, Maarten said ‘no, no, no - I want you there with me at 6am - you have to talk to me, tell me jokes, keep me company.” 

Van den Hoogenband, his pool career at an end after he raced in a record fourth 100m final at the Water Cube, did just that. Now, the distance ace is set to follow the former sprint king as the Dutch Athlete of the Year.

A 25km world champion in May, Van der Weijden said: "Lance Armstong's story is the one that everyone knows. In his book he talks about fighting the cancer and being desperate to get back on his bike, but I didn't feel like that. I was lying in my hospital bed feeling at peace with which ever way it would go. I was diagnosed in March 2001 and didn't think I would ever swim again. I had been to the world championships in 2000 in Hawaii and finished 9th and 10th. I was 19 years old and it was expected that I'd do good things in open water swimming."

 "After my treatment I lost 13kg, I couldn't sit, stand or anything. Two weeks after getting out of hospital my mother persuaded me to go swimming again, to enjoy the feeling of being in the water and start to get back into some sort of shape again. I hadn't even thought about a come back at that stage. I would look at my body in the mirror all the time and wonder if I was getting better or whether the cancer would come back, but in the pool I didn't feel any fear that the cancer would come back. I felt relaxed and happy in the water.'

The Olympic champion said: "By 2003 I was back in the team and finished 15th and 16th at the Barcelona World Championships. Before the decision that the 10k would be in the Olympics my main goal was to be world champion at the 25k. I trained a lot of hours and I didn't think I had the speed for the 5k or the 10k. I decided to do a swim across a Dutch lake, Ijsselmeer. It is 20km wide and I won in a new record time and raised E50,000 for Dutch Cancer. I believe that I didn't fight cancer, I just had the right treatment, so I wanted to raise money to help fund treatments for other people."

Van der Weijden dedicated his gold medal to all who had donated money for cancer research, saying: "I am thrilled ... without their generous donations I might not be here." One battle had helped him prepare for another: "The leukemia has taught me to think step-by-step. When you are in hospital and feeling so much pain and feeling so tired, you don't want to want to think about the next day or week - you just think about the next hour. It teaches you to be patient when you are lying in a hospital bed and that was almost the same strategy I chose here to wait for my chance in the pack."

Davies took the same tactic as teammates Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten the day before, breaking to the front from the start in order to stay out of trouble. Drafting in swimming is estimated by the English Institute of Sport to save 15% on energy. A lot of energy was save in today's racing drafting behind Davies. Half an hour into the race, Davies was passed by Spyridion Gianniotis, of Greece, who deliberately moved to a different path so that the Welshman and those drafting in his wake could not tag along behind him. But 10 minutes later, Davies was back at the helm. At 2.km out from the finish, Lurz made a break, taking a pack of seven with him, including all the favourites for the crown.

Davies hung on and with 1km to go made a sudden surge, opening up a lead of some 10m at one stage. The Dutchman, Lurz and world champion Vladimir Dyatchin (RUS) followed. At some stage in the next 200m, the Russian was given a red card, his OLympic dream over. The lead three raced on, but were swimming well into the middle of the lake. With 400m to go, all three had to swerve across the course into the path of the home-straight lane lines. 

His “head spinning and body gone”, a disorientated Davies headed for the far buoy of the home straight finish lane instead of the near side, taking Thomas Lurz, of Germany, with him. Van der Weijden seized the day, tucked in to the finish lane with a 2 metre advantage as his rivals headed across the course and maintained the lead over the final 100m sprint.

The gold was his in 1hr 51 minutes 51.6 seconds, 1.5sec ahead of Davies, with Lurz 0.5sec further adrift. The battling Brit said: "He's a great ambassador for swimming and a worthy champion, his story is amazing and can inspire a lot of people. It was a pleasure to race him. What he has achieved is phenomenal.” The same could be said of Davies, who has only swum three 10km races. A remarkable achievement - and swimming out front proved to be the best tactic in the end. But for the mistake in the closing stretch, he would have been champion.

He will try again. “I’d really like to swim in the Serpentine in London four years time: it’ll be a fantastic spectacle. I hope by then I’ll be able to swim straight, learn all the tactics and get some meat on me to bounce them all off. I hope to go one better in London in front of a home crowd in four years time.”

As he climbed out of the lake on to the pontoon, Davies collapsed and did not have the energy to fend off stretcher bearers who carried him to a nearby ambulance. Davies played down the incident when he said: "I just wanted to lie down and have a sleep, but before I knew it I was on a stretcher."

Once he had recovered, he found himself being dragged away from media interviews by overzealous Chinese marshals. A scuffle broke out, in which Davies’s coach Kevin Renshaw, and Michael Scott, Britain’s performance director, shouted at the marshals to "keep your hands off him - do not touch him”. 

The female marshal then shouted at Davies and smacked him on the arm with her clipboard. Davies was forced to break off from being interviewed to say: “Just shut up!” She did no such thing, continued to harangue the British swimmer aggressively while tugging on his arm as media from around the world looked on in amazement. Davies then shook the plastic bottle he was carrying and splashed water in the official's face to try to calm her down. 

Conscious of diplomacy, Scott later joked: “He was just shaking a champagne bottle, nothing more than that.” The aggressive official, meanwhile, was spoke to harshly by one of the venue managers, hopefully with a view to avoiding a repeat performance as the world's cameras tune in to China.

Scott also praised Davies for giving “his heart and soul” and sending a message to all British athletes that “they should believe in themselves - they now know that they can compete with the best in the world and come away with medals. Success breeds success”. Davies’s silver took to three out of a total of six medals for Britain in the marathon after Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten took silver and bronze the day before. Britain has a challenge ahead to match a tally of half the medals in open water at a home Games in 2012.

Much work ahead but the inaugural 10km marathon for men was a thriller, as things turned out - and will doubtless contribute to the event's long-term survival as an Olympic event.