“Full-time sport? That's a slightly scary prospect”

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“Full-time sport? That's a slightly scary prospect”

Marissa Damink is witty, sociable and, above all, true to herself. Like an Alice in Wonderland she drinks tea, talking all the while about the full range of her athletic adventures with infinite candor. Since coolly deciding she wanted to thrust herself into the pack of leading 800-meter runners, her life has been a voyage of discovery. These days she trains and races on the ‘track less travelled’, where she studies the etiquette of athletics and is on a quest for the dream balance between pleasure and performance. In August, this modest TU/e student was suddenly at the national European Championship and is now sprinting from crossroads to crossroads in her life.

Marissa was actually a talented hockey player. In her home town of Roosendaal she played sweeper in the highest youth teams at R.M.H.C. De Pelikaan. “We had a strong and fanatical team playing at the national level, but I didn't have any sporting ambitions. I've never dreamed of the National League or of joining Oranje, the international players. School and later college were my number one priority.” At the age of fifteen, she dislocated her knee and that put an end to her hockey-playing life. Seeking an alternative way to stay fit, a year later she took up running.

Marissa Damink | 800-meter runner | Rotterdam Atletiek | ESAV Asterix | TU/e | Eindhoven | Human-Technology Interaction | Roosendaal | aged 23

“Back when I played hockey, I noticed I had an aptitude for running. Whenever we did fitness training, I outperformed the others,” she says in a unique accent blending The Hague and Brabant. She joined Athletics Association Thor in Roosendaal and later switched to E.S.A.V. Asterix during her second year of Psychology & Technology at TU/e. “I was already living in student rooms, but initially Eindhoven didn't feel like home. When I became an active member of study association Intermate and started going along to Asterix training sessions, I made new friends; that helped me settle into student life. After that, I became a member and I've also done a stint on the board as competition secretary.”

Although she now trains with other national talents in Rotterdam and Castricum, Asterix continues to be her home. “Asterix is sociable and welcomes all-comers. Compared to other athletic associations, Asterix has a comprehensive technique group and its running group encompasses many different levels. Someone wanting to run a marathon is just as welcome as someone who wants to learn to sprint a hundred meters. At other associations they work with specialist groups, all seriously aiming to reach the top. Of course, that improves performance, but equally it makes it hard to be true to yourself.”

‘True to myself’. It sounds like an IPA craft beer, but it is Marissa’s four-syllable personal motto and also the Asterix elixir that has got her running faster. The possible loss of that quality is her greatest fear in her current transition to the elite. “I'm a little bit susceptible to fear of failure, in both my studies and in athletics. Frequently I worry that I'm not doing well enough, by the standard I set myself, that is. Even though I'm now running faster than ever before, I'll end a session with a dissatisfied feeling more often than in the past. If I'm not being true to myself, I can't put running in the proper perspective. Drive is essential, but I don't want to end up in a rigid training regime. Outside of training sessions, you should still be able to do fun things with your friends, right?”

Being better than others isn't something I attach much value to; it's myself that I want to improve

Marissa Damink
TU/e student and 800-meter runner

Thanks to her considerable perspicacity, Marissa has found smart ways of dealing with her fear of failing in her studies and sport. Rather than medals or prize money, she has chosen personal development as the measure of her success. “I think it is fine to come last with a time that's a personal best. Being better than others isn't something I attach much value to; it's myself that I want to improve. That's why I prefer fast races to tactical races. Of course I want to win at a national championships, so I run tactically, but podium places never tell the whole story.”

Being true to herself is also uppermost when she voices her long-term ambitions. When the young Madonna was once asked what she wanted to achieve with her music, she replied ‘To rule the world’. Marissa, by contrast, neither bigs herself up nor goes in for theatrics. “Expressing my ambitions is a little bit scary. An elite athlete shouldn't feel like that, but I'm wary of making statements. In the Eindhovens Dagblad, for example, it said that my aim is to get to Olympic Games in Paris, but I didn't say it like that. It made me seem arrogant. They asked ‘Would you like to go to the Games?’ Of course I said ‘yes’. I mean, who wouldn't? It was a lesson in handling the press more smartly.”

You can't accuse Marissa of hubris; a cheerful reserve permeates all her Instagram posts. She is fearful of giving a distorted impression. “Privately, it is something I worry about, including on social media. Now that I'm running at national championships, I sometimes worry that Asterix members will think I'm arrogant. But I'm not going to behave any differently, even though I do have to get used to people suddenly having an opinion about me. An example: since I've been training eight to ten times a week this year, I've lost weight and I sometimes get comments like ‘Do you want a cookie? Oh wait, I bet you don't eat them.’ As if I've suddenly stopped eating or snacking.” At which point Marissa notices her empty teacup and the still untouched cookie in the saucer, and laughs.

I'm not going to behave any differently, even though I do have to get used to people suddenly having an opinion about me

Marissa Damink
TU/e student and 800-meter runner

A snowball rolling downhill like a speeding train, that describes Marissa’s evolution to the top, picking up all kinds of new adventures and situations along the way. In August she was suddenly at the national European Championships, running in Norway. “Winning the National Championship would secure my qualification but, unfortunately, I finished second behind Britt Ummels. She runs faster when the pace is quick at the start a race. She was tactically smart, going off fast, and as a result my sprint finish lacked panache. Despite all this, I got a call saying I could join the national team. It was a massive honor to be selected. Although, of course, I'd have rather taken part as the Dutch champion,” she says with a laugh.

To become Holland's number one, she is now also training with Peter Wolters in Castricum and occasionally with Rotterdam Atletiek. “Ton van Hoesel, my trainer at Asterix, does a lot of block interval training, so that I can maintain a specific tempo over a long distance. That's given me my basis. At Rotterdam Atletiek I train with other 800-meter specialists who have the fanaticism of elite runners. I hope all this will enable me to further improve my pure speed, power and technique. But Ton reads me well, he knows that relaxation is essential. He's the same way in life; the sun's always shining in Ton's world. I take care to hold onto that feeling whenever I'm training.”

As soon as Marissa starts talking about the beauty of an 800-meter race, her eyes start to shine and the pace of her speech goes up a gear. “Running an 800 meters is the most wonderful thing there is. You have to combine mental resilience with speed and endurance. Oh, and above all, you have to be able to endure the lactic acid buildup; that really hurts. After a race my legs are always painful and I have a headache. But mentally I always feel good after running. After fast, hard training sessions I feel at my best; I get rid of excess energy then. On long runs I have moments to myself, that's when I reflect on my day and run off whatever's bugging me.”

But self-reflection or relaxing thoughts have no place during important races. The 800 meters is running in the raw. “If you think or doubt, you've had it. Every bit of speed you lose is gone for good, you'll never recover it. I sometimes used to wonder after four or five hundred meters whether I was already tired, but that put a mental brake on my pace. Before the race, I come up with Plan A and Plan B, and for the rest I run on instinct. During the race there is no time or place for theatrics or intimidating an opponent; you are pushing it to the limit the whole time.”

What if I stop enjoying it? Then suddenly I'll be left with nothing

Marissa Damink
TU/e student and 800-meter runner

Marissa's present evolution seems to her like a dream that has come true on the very same day; it seems to be going that fast. But just like Alice in Wonderland, Marissa often finds herself facing difficult choices. “I've nearly finished my degree, and then what? Full-time sport? That's a slightly scary prospect. What if I stop enjoying it, then suddenly I'll be left with nothing. Besides, I grew up with the idea that after college you get a good job, but I can't combine that with full-time sport. At the moment, my heart and head are saying carry on with sport and work part time. Luckily my boyfriend is also an 800-meter runner, so I can talk to him about it.”

“Well, I really just fell into this by chance and I wonder how I'll look back on my decisions in six months' time. Perhaps my ambitions will have changed. Perhaps I'll think it's logical to give things up. Perhaps I'll want to give elite sport my all. But whatever happens, I'll always be true to myself!”

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