Motivational speaker Maarten van der Weijden speaks from the heart when he says medicine was the only thing that helped him fight leukaemia and that his winning of a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, while recuperating from one of the most deadly forms of cancer, could not be attributed to a case of "mind over matter".
Maarten van der Weijden with his gold medal won at the Beijing Olympics.
The former sportsman has come a long way since his days as a swimmer for the Dutch national team. His star-studded achievements as a long-distance swimmer made him second to none. Two of his most cherished feats were the gold medals he secured at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the World Championships in Seville that same year.
Cancer had struck at the high point of his swimming career, he said, forcing him, in 2001, to take two years out to battle the disease. At one point he was not expected to survive.
This is Van der Weijden's take on his miraculous recovery.
"The Dutch media were likening me, back then, to American cyclist [Lance] Armstrong who also had battled cancer and who had said something about positive thinking and doing a lot of sports having played a huge part in his recovery. Well, that wasn't the case for me. Also, I don't agree, as this could be taken to imply that if you're not a positive thinker all the time, you will lose.
"The doctors, and not just the power of positive thinking and my passion for swimming, were what saved me. I was able to fight leukaemia because of a stem-cell transplant. Due to this, I had the luck to recover. So for everyone who has donated money to cancer research in the past, I am extremely grateful to them. Maybe I wouldn't be here otherwise," he said.
After he had made a full recovery, Van der Weijden was persuaded by his father to return to swimming.
At that stage he only wanted to break the records he had previously set, he said. He became focused on picking up his swimming career from where he had left off when he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 19.
He speaks with great insight on how his fight against cancer has affected him. One thing he learned, he said, was to think step-by-step and be patient. Cancer patients are often in so much pain lying in a hospital bed, he added, that they aren't thinking about the following day or next week even, but only about how to get through the next hour. The gradually-does-it approach is the same strategy he uses in "the pack", he said, referring to swimming competitions when he's waiting for an opportunity to break out and overtake his rivals.
Born in Alkmaar, a historic town in the northwestern part of the Netherlands, the lanky athlete said that, for him, the setting of a goal includes deciding on the process and methods that will best help him reach the target he has set for himself.
While he was drawing up a training regime to prepare himself for competing at the Olympics, he said a doctor suggested he sleep in a low-oxygen tent, reasoning that this would increase his red-blood-cell count and strengthen him for the rigours of marathon swimming. Luckily, a year prior to the Games in Beijing, he got the chance to experience staying in a tent set up in a high-altitude location. This proved to be a real challenge, he said, because it was so uncomfortable to move around.
In the run-up to the Olympics, Van der Weijden would regularly spend 15 hours a day practising swimming techniques. To sharpen your winning strategy, he said it is important to pay attention to every little detail. For example, he noted that long-distance swimmers usually try to get into the lead after passing the first couple of "feeding stations" during the course of a race. He said he would normally avoid putting himself in a leading position because that could easily backfire. Having a flexible mindset, he said, is often a good way of reaching a desired goal.
"I always look for any tip or technique to increase my chances of winning," he said. "The swimming cap is one example. I don't wear it for racing in warm water because it gives me an uncomfortable feeling and tends to slow me down due to the added heat. You have to figure out what works best for you in the situation you're in."