By Lara Neervoort and Ivana Solar
— Amsterdam University College students often complain about deadlines and the workload of their honours program, but how would they feel about combining their studies with an intensive training schedule to compete at the Olympic Games?
21-year old science major Christina Maat had this experience first-hand up until half a year ago, successfully combining her studies at AUC with 40 or more hours of training per week to compete in synchronized swimming at the Olympic Games of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. After coming in 9th in the qualifying round, Maat and her duet partner did not meet the Dutch requirements to place in the next round, as they had to place 8th or higher, leaving the Netherlands without a synchronized swimming duet to compete for them in the upcoming Olympic Games.
Aiming for the Olympics was not a sudden decision, since Maat started training synchronized swimming at the age of eight as a way of combining her two passions: dancing and swimming. Maat started out at a club near The Hague, but when her parents moved she joined a club in Hoofddorp that turned out to be competing at a high level. There she began competing at a national level. Even at nationals, Maat was getting high rankings, which is why she was selected for the national team “Jong Oranje” in 2008 when she was 14 years old.
In her final year of high school, Maat was swimming 30 hours a week, but she did manage to pass her VWO exam with a combined profile in physics, biology and chemistry. After obtaining her diploma, Maat took a gap year to fully focus on her swimming and to figure out how she wanted to continue her athletic career. “My gap year was an experience, but I didn’t like to have just one thing to do,” she said. “I need to be able to focus on something else next to swimming. Although I had more time for friends in my gap year, they were all studying or working.”
During her gap year in 2012 she decided that she wanted to try and compete in the Olympics. “I wanted to see how much I could achieve and what my limits were,” said Maat.
Maat ended up sacrificing a lot of time and energy for a sport that essentially wasn’t getting the financial nor commercial support it needed in order to secure the Dutch team a spot in the Olympic Games. “The Dutch Olympics committee prefer to spend money on sports which are guaranteed to get them medals,” Maat said.
The problem lay in the fact that the Dutch National Olympic Committee, which is funded by the government and large sponsors mainly, cut the funding for the duet, a 200.000 euro blow to the 300.000 euros they needed to get to the games and use appropriate training facilities to get there. “We were training 40 hours a week while we should have been training about 60 hours, but without the money we weren’t able to pay for the facilities and coaches that we needed and that the other teams had.”
The National Olympic Committee cut the funding due to the financial crisis and essentially the lack of money available to them at the time. The swimming federation, a smaller branch under the National Olympic Committe which also regulates how much money is to be delegated to each federation’s sport, funded 100.000 euros to synchronized swimming. Even within the separate federations for all the different sports, there is a different amount of money allocated to the sports within the federation, so in this case, “they choose to fund sports which are more likely to get medals, so more money is invested in sports like speed swimming and waterpolo, which are in the swimming federation,” said Maat.
“The National Olympic Committee can decide to provide you with the money if they want, and if they don’t, then they say ‘if you can find the money and make it, then you can go,’” Maat said. This also means that teams from other countries that perform at a lower level but are able to fund their athletes, are able to qualify and get into the Olympics, as long as they fulfill the international Olympic requirements. This kink in the system shows that sometimes it isn’t enough to be the best.
“We somehow managed to arrange a training camp through crowd funding but the requirements and guidelines were so unclear to us even when we were going into the qualifying round,” said Maat.
Despite meeting the international Olympic guidelines to qualify, the Dutch requirements were a lot stricter and were ultimately the barrier between the Dutch duet and their spot in the Olympic games. “Nobody on the other teams could believe that we didn’t get through, we were definitely among the best there, but there wasn’t much we could do, the Dutch Olympic committee wanted to fund other sports and made the rules so strict so that it would be really hard to get through.”
According to Maat, most other countries don’t have their own requirements in order to qualify for the Olympics, but merely follow the general, international guidelines set by the International Olympic Committee. “The Netherlands is actually one of the only countries that has its own guidelines and this kind of angered the International Olympic Committee even during the London games because it kind of diminishes the rules set by them,” said Maat.
After not getting through the qualifying round and returning to AUC, Maat was surprised at how much support she got from the people she met there only briefly due to her busy training schedule. “It really helped me to see how supportive and kind everyone was after I got back, I didn’t expect it at all!”
Certain aspects of Maat’s life have changed, she is able to enjoy the small things now that most students take for granted, like being able to go to parties and even get groceries whenever she chooses. “I have so much time now, I don’t feel like I have to do anything, or look at the clock during class to see if I’ll make it to practice,” she said. Her studies are now her priority, and with more time to focus on her degree, she also found her passions in the field of academics: neuroscience and psychology which she is now combining, rather than physics with which she started at AUC.
Maat now finds time for things she couldn’t have done before, and while she remains active in her lifestyle, she chooses other sports over swimming, such as ballet and group fitness sessions. “I wanted to get back to my swimming club and help out there after I left, because I felt like it was my duty, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that I was there because I had to be there and not because I wanted to be there,” explained Maat. “I needed to get away from it for a while, I wasn’t ready to be back there.”
Even though choosing to resign was not easy, Maat does not regret it. “Of course it was hard, after I gave it everything I had, but I was also pushing myself a lot at the time. I felt like I was being lived and wasn’t living,” said Maat.
Although the strict regulations and policies behind the selection process for the Olympic games obstructed Maat’s aspirations to officially become an Olympian, her spirit and ambition definitely matches or even exceeds that of an Olympian. She is able to view her situation as an opportunity to discover new things about herself and her future rather than see it as a setback. “I think I definitely know my limits now and I am grateful for that experience,” she said.