Dutchman Defies The Odds
May 8, 2008
Craig Lord and Helen Gorman

We don't write much on open water here in the civilised world of pool swimming but here's a tale of courage, determination and dedication that's well worth taking the time for:

Maarten van der Weijden (NED), the open water swimmer who recovered from cancer, made a comeback and earned a place at the Olympic Games for the inaugural 10km marathon, topped an amazing week by claiming the world 25km title in Seville today.

Van Der Weijden, 27 and 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.

Talking to former British international Helen Gorman in Seville, he 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.'

'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.'

'That was 14th August 2004 and I hope 21st September 2008 will be another important date for me, that's the 10k at the Olympics. It would complete the story if I won gold, but I'm a realistic person and I need to be very lucky. I could have the perfect race and finish lower down.'

The waters at the Shunyi rowing lake in Beijing are tipped to bubble to 30 C in the hot Chinese summer. The Dutchman proved himself capable of coping with those conditions when he won a 'hot water' World Cup event in Dubaii recently and is aiming to improve on a fourth place in the 10km in Seville. Tactics become all the more important in warm water.

In Seville, David Davies (GBR) established himself as a danger man from the pool by leading from the front, losing the gold by a touch on the sprint home with Vladimir Dyatchin (RUS), the experience world open water champion. The conditions in Beijing will be akin to a giant pool. The water is even chlorinated to a degree.

If Davies is used to covering big distances in the pool, so too is Van Der Weijden, who says he will reach 120km a week at peak heavy cycle. He sleeps in a tent that replicates altitude conditions and shines lights in the morning to achieve speedier wakefulness. No stone unturned - and when you've been through what he has, nothing to lose either.