“Did I really say that?” Esmee laughs. “Perhaps I've changed my attitude since then; life isn't all about heroism. But my goal is still to win gold at the Olympic Games. Nothing less.” It's a goal whose seeds were sown in 2002. “My parents arranged for me to take an intensive weekend course so I could get my basic swimming diplomas; they didn't want to spend their time waiting around at the swimming pool. Then they worried that I would forget how to swim and enrolled me in a local swimming club. Once I had mastered my front-crawl breathing, I started making progress and was having more and more fun. As a result my parents had to take me to the pool three times a week.”
Esmee Vermeulen | open water swimming | Pieter van den Hoogenband Swimming Stadium | TU/e student of Medical Science and Technology | aged 22 | elite athlete | road to Tokyo 2020
The modest 'three hours a week training' were multiplied by five when Esmee swam her first Dutch record at the age of twelve. It was a moment of self-realization and euphoria: this could really lead somewhere, this is great fun. Trainers poolside started talking about a natural talent from the province of North Holland and a swimming career was born. “That's when I was sent to the Regional Training Center in Amsterdam. Sixteen hours a week of swimming as well as 'exercises on dry land'. That's quite a workload for a twelve-year-old girl, isn't it?”
Her passion to swim and her work ethic soon meant harsher demands were being placed on her. “When I was fifteen I left home and moved to Amsterdam. In the swimming world it's quite normal to be independent at a young age. It took some getting used to but luckily I had a housemate who also swam. At the age of sixteen I started at a LOOT school (for aspiring athletes, ed.) and everything was geared to swimming. We'd be in the pool by seven a.m., school started at nine, from three to five we had more training, and we'd go to bed at eight p.m. It wasn't difficult. All my friends swam and I'm naturally a morning person.”
Esmee has never wavered in her commitment to elite sport - not even when faced with setbacks or middling results. Her motto is crystal clear: “If you want something badly enough, you'll get it”. If you want applause at the Olympic Games, you'll get it. She missed out on the 2012 Games by 0.09 seconds, partly because she had mononucleosis, but she made the squad in 2016. Her relay team finished in fourteenth place; the podium ceremony she had dreamed of did not materialize. At the Games at least; at World Championships she was part of successful relay teams. In Barcelona (2013) she won a bronze over the 50 m distance (long course) and in Doha (2014) she performed better, winning three gold medals over 25 m (short course). Thousands of swimmers would call fewer achievements than this a successful career, but not Esmee.
The applause she earned for her relay victories did not sound the same as the clapping she heard in her mind as a thirteen-year-old. “Winning in a relay is different than individually. In individual events it is all your own work. While I think of relay medals as ‘my’ medals, you share them with a team. A team performance is certainly cool, but not the same. Right now I would swap one of my gold team medals for an individual medal. At the end of the day, it is an individual sport - and I don't yet have an individual medal,” she says with a laugh.
An individual gold medal in the pool may prove difficult. “The perfectionism of the indoor pool appeals to me. From start to finish everything has to be just right. From the walk-on to the touch you are completely in your zone. You are utterly oblivious to all the shouting and cheering in the stands. You don't even hear the applause. But I thought I was nearing my limit in the pool. As an experiment, I took part in a World Cup open-water competition and that went surprisingly well. And then, of course, that surprise at this summer's European Championships happened.”
This might be the moment when you think: ‘Ah, that's where I know her from!’ Yes, indeed, at the European Championships in Glasgow she took the bronze medal in the 10-kilometer marathon swim. Suddenly, there wasn't only Sharon van Rouwendaal, the Netherlands could boast of another woman swimmer: Esmee Vermeulen. An amiable girl with a ready smile, but one with the power and allure of a five-star yacht. A girl who could not believe that she had won a medal, an individual medal. What is the secret? “Swimming at World Cup events has increased my mental resilience and I'm now making better tactical choices. I have more experience of the knocks you get while you are swimming. Sometimes it's a real thump. At first I thought, ‘Wow, what's happening?’ but I have learned to dismiss it.”
Something else she switches off during competition is enjoying her surroundings. Sensory impressions like the smell of the water, seeing rare fauna or the play of sunlight on the water are not relevant. Swimming is about distances, speeds and the first person to touch. Esmee thinks only of the podium ceremony that as a teenager in Zaandam she wrote, directed and acted in. The premier should take place in Tokyo in 2020. “While I am swimming I'm thinking only about swimming. Never about worries or daily concerns. It's all about tactics and doing battle. When are you going to take a drink, when are you going to accelerate, and especially, in whose slipstream are you going to swim? The competition you're up against fills your thoughts because it's not about the time, it's only about winning.”
Does Esmee ever enjoy herself during a training session? “Actually we always train indoors so we rarely see any beautiful nature. A couple of times a year we go to a training camp somewhere that has similar conditions to those of the competition. Then we have time to enjoy ourselves. And luckily we always go to hot countries. Recently we were even in the Seychelles.” But then again beauty and comfort aren't things Esmee expects from swimming. Swimming itself “is simply fun” and she does it to win medals. Pleasure and distraction she finds elsewhere, from studying.
The average student plays sport to provide some distraction. It is a way to let off steam or to release exam stress. For these very reasons, Esmee started a degree program. “I study to have something else in my life besides swimming. And I never introduce myself as a student; always as a swimmer. Studying takes energy but it offers mental distraction. After high school, I swam full time for a year, but I didn't like it.” Typical of her thinking, when she chose TU/e her choice was motivated entirely by the presence of the Pieter van den Hoogenband Swimming Stadium. “I wanted to study medicine but that meant going to Nijmegen or Maastricht; too far to travel. So in Eindhoven I chose the most medical program on offer.”
Since then Esmee has settled into her life in Eindhoven. “I always used to want to swim and study in the United States, but now here in Eindhoven I have my friends and social life. The support TU/e gives me is fantastic. My friends understand what I do and take it into account. Dinners, for example, always have to be planned for later in the evening. My boyfriend is a BMT student and actively involved in student life, so he has enough to keep him busy whenever I'm away for a month travelling. My relationship is a huge source of energy. I let love take its course, but if I ever noticed it was getting in the way, I'd break off a relationship. Elite sport is not holy, but it does come first.”
The current goal in her sights is the upcoming open water World Championships in South Korea in July 2019. In view of all the qualification requirements and the quality of her training buddy Sharon van Rouwendaal, Esmee will need to finish in the top 10 there in order to secure a place at the next Olympics. “If I don't make the top 10, then it is over, then I can't go to Tokyo. It is a challenge, but after the Europeans I am confident. Besides, I have the feeling that there are still plenty of aspects of my race that I can improve.”
How the world will look post-Tokyo, Esmee does not yet know. “I have no idea. Nor do I know whether I want to take my study further. I might study something else when I stop swimming at this level. After all, I will have to earn a living doing something other than swimming.” The 13-year-old Esmee thought only of swimming and the 22-year-old Esmee is no different at all. But if the day ever comes that she approaches a career out in society with the mindset of an elite athlete, there's one thing you can be sure of: if she wants something, she'll get it.
Raymond Starke works at the TU/e Student Sports Centre, in the midst of more than 13 thousand sport card holders who frequently (or less frequently) do sports to their heart's content. Once every four weeks, he interviews a student or employee for Cursor on the topic of ‘the beauty and consolation of sports’.