Tom Vrancken: “I've maxed out my student years”

PDEng on its way to World Cup rafting

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Tom Vrancken: “I've maxed out my student years”

Now, for the first time, Tom Vrancken (aged 32) feels as if he has experienced enough of student life. In 2006 he first set foot on the TU/e-campus; in October 2021 he will come and collect what is likely to be his last degree. He will have completed his PDEng and can start looking at what industry has to offer him. Not that a return to TU/e can be ruled out since he feels the pull of teaching. Another passion is paddling through water, whether in a canoe, a dragon boat or a raft. This month he takes part in the World Championships in France.

file photo Privécollectie Tom Vrancken

For Tom, staying on a while at TU/e after completing his Master's of Computer Science and Engineering was a fairly logical step. “At an info day while still doing my bachelor's, I realized that a PDEng would suit me perfectly. I didn't want to spend four years working on one particular subject the way doctoral candidates do, I much preferred the idea of spending two years broadening my range in a professional sense while studying in-depth. Instead of becoming a software developer, a role that many master's graduates move straight into, I want to work my way up to software designer and ultimately software architect. This PDEng Software Technology seems tailor-made for me.” Tom is finding his graduation project at Philips on the High Tech Campus challenging and instructive. “It is cool to have the chance to work on a complex design issue involved in a real product.”

To come back to his age: “Age means nothing, I still feel at home at TU/e.” We'd already gathered this from all the hard work he put in for the summer camp run by Okawa, the Eindhoven Student Canoe Association. “Over time I've become one of the 'elders' within the group,” he says matter-of-factly.

Elite athlete

When Tom arrived at TU/e aged seventeen, he numbered among the best canoeists in the Netherlands. As a high-schooler, he was selected for the national juniors; as a first-year undergraduate he joined the seniors. He became eligible for elite sporting status. “This status means you can apply to TU/e for a Student Financial Support grant to compensate for the costs incurred when you rack up study delays, and you are allowed to reschedule your exams if they coincide with important competitions or training camps. Shunting courses into subsequent academic years is something that has to be arranged with the university. My main point of contact was the department's academic advisor.”

Every year the curriculum was turned on its head; a timetabling nightmare.

Tom Vrancken
PDENG Software Technology

In his bachelor's years, scheduling his courses presented a timetabling nightmare. “I started my degree in Computer Science & Engineering with a timetable spread over three trimesters, then we switched to semesters, and finally quartiles were introduced and I adapted again. Every year the curriculum was turned on its head.” It took him six years to get his first degree. “Not that it gave me sleepless nights, mind you. I was making good use of my time doing sport, getting an extra minor and passing some master's courses ahead of time. Also, as a student-assistant I was working for Information and Recruitment and was supervising courses.”

It was doing this that Tom discovered how much he enjoys teaching, and because it was possible to do a condensed teacher-training course at ESoE, he now also has a Master's of Education and certified teacher status in Computer Science to his name. “You never know when it might be useful.”


During his early years in higher education, Tom chose to “miss out on quite a lot for elite sport” but when the federation made it a requirement that canoeists train on the body of water known as the Bosbaan (Forest Course; it's in the Amsterdamse Bos) and the technical staff were going through a troubled period, Tom felt he'd had enough for the time being. “I wanted to give my body a year's rest and decided to take a break so I could experience some of what student life had to offer.”

And so he did! He became a member of Okawa and an ocean of time seemed to stretch out before him. The first board year he completed as secretary with the sports federation ESSF left him keen for more. “Organizing and administration were things I enjoyed and felt were useful.” The following year he was vice president of Okawa (a breeze compared with ESSF) and a year later he became president.

In the meantime, he had been among the paddlers at the largest Dragon Boat Festival in China, where he represented the Netherlands in the Holland 22. Training in such a large boat with twenty paddlers, a steerperson and a drummer on the canals of Alkmaar was fantastic; the adventure in China was unforgettable.

When in 2016 Tom joined the board of the national Student Winter Sports Foundation, he realized that with all these activities and a master's study to complete, returning to elite sport wasn't really an option.


As a member of Okawa, Tom had fabulous adventures on wild waters all over Europe, and twice in Uganda. Having been primarily an individual athlete throughout his career as a canoeist, he realized he was keen to experience performing in a team. “A couple of years ago, I met a young guy in Corsica who rafts. In rafting you have four or six people maneuvering a boat along a river. It's really a matter of braking and paddling hard, and getting two valuable things right as you go: the crew's rhythm and the boat's balance. It is also important to steer the raft along the fastest line downstream.”

In 2019 Terminator Tom - as he is known among Okawans because he has a round bullet-style camera on his helm - starting training with the elite rafters of the Netherlands. They train - oh the coincidence - on the water near an historic watermill, the Volmolen, in the municipality of Waalre. “Most of the Dutch elite in wildwater (as wildwater rafting is known) were raised at the Volmolen Canoe Club.” The Volmolen Energy Team (VET), which Tom has joined, is used to qualifying for the World Rafting Championships. The championships in 2019 were due to be held in China's Wuhan, but 'fell in the water' due to COVID-19, to quote Tom.

Most of the Dutch elite in wildwater were raised at the Volmolen Canoe Club.

Tom Vrancken
PDEng Software Technology

Since corona has had the world in its grip, Tom hasn't competed in a single rafting event. But he has carried on training. “I bought rollerblades and a racing bike, and in my dad's garden I've been able to put in some serious work using training gear I've still got from my days in elite sport. I am fit.” Since the easing of rules following the first lockdown, VET has been looking for opportunities to compete, but rafters always have to wait until springtime brings enough melted snow to make the rivers in mountain valleys run fast.

Now VET will be among the competitors in the Durance Valley in the French Alps. Familiar terrain for Tom; with Okawa he's been there five times, if not more. From June 28th through July 3rd thirty national crews will converge here, bringing 350 athletes in all. VET will be representing the Netherlands with an R4 (a four-person raft) in the categories of slalom, down river and head-to-head. The last is a knock-out competition, with two boats battling it out in each round.

“I was totally ready to end my career in elite sport, but I feel very fortunate to be able to go to another World Championships with an experienced crew that is happy to have me,” says Tom. They can't count on me for steering skills, but I'm tenacious and my years in kayaking mean I can read currents and whirlpools. And pull hard enough on the paddles. Who knows, maybe there'll be a second chapter to my elite sporting career.”

For any armchair experts out there, the results of the World Rafting Championships can be tracked using this link.

Once VET has turned in its last performance, Tom can resume his role of elder at Okawa. Staying on in the Durance Valley, Tom will be joining Okawa's summer camp there. “I don't expect this to be my last student activity because I'm not leaving Okawa anytime soon. The club is keen for its experienced members to stay on as trainers/instructors and to supervise outdoor trips. And besides, I'm still really enjoying myself at Okawa.”

All photos in this story are from the private collection of Tom Vrancken.

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