Feature Story

London 2012 Olympics: The Ride of His Life

Olympian windsurfer Martijn Van Geemen fought hard to achieve his dream of representing the Netherlands at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and beyond.

Program Manager Martijn Van Geemen and his family live in Monnickendam, a small city about 15 kilometers north of Amsterdam, a short walk away from the Ijsselmeer, the largest lake in Western Europe.

When Martijn was 10, his father took up windsurfing. At first, he towed young Martijn, who did not have the strength to handle an adult-sized sail, and who floated behind the board, thrilled with the fast ride.

It probably never crossed his father's mind that the little boy clinging to his legs would grow up to be a formidable competitor in every European and world windsurfing championship between 1993 and 2000—and represent the Netherlands in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Martijn's father bought him a child-sized sail, and soon the boy was windsurfing around the lake on his own, towing his friends on the back of the board. As he grew, Martijn began competing and frequently won. He even dreamed of windsurfing as a career.

Martijn watched Dutch windsurfer Stephan Vandenberg win Olympic gold in 1984 in Los Angeles and then Doreen De Vries take the bronze medal in 1992 in Barcelona. At that moment, he began seriously considering what he would need to do to represent the Netherlands at the 1996 Atlanta Games. He had just four years to get there and a long way to go.

First, he switched to the "One Design" board used in the Olympics. He started working intensively with a national sailing federation coach. By 1994, he was training year-round and following the summer sun—and the World Cup tour—from hemisphere to hemisphere, in more than 15 different countries on five continents. He spent up to six hours each day in the water on board-handling exercises, speed practices, or races with teammates.

After winning the Dutch national trials in 1995 but then scoring 28th at the world rankings, Martijn realized he had to double down on training. The Netherlands will send only athletes to the Olympic Games who place eighth or higher in world rankings. There was only one last chance for Martijn to qualify—at the Holland Regatta in Medemblik that took place almost a year later. The top six would earn a spot on the team. Martijn, who says he was "on fire" this time, took fourth place.

A month later, still exhausted from the trials and intense training and stunned by his last-minute placement on the Olympic team, he arrived in Savannah, Georgia. He remembers the terror of narrowly escaping the worst thunderstorm he has ever seen while practicing there, the pride of walking into the stadium with the entire Netherlands team during the Opening Ceremonies, and the excitement of seeing the Dutch volleyball team win the gold in a "thriller" final against Italy.

While Martijn placed a modest 18th out of 45 windsurfing competitors at the 1996 Atlanta Games, he was destined for progressively greater achievements. With the help of different trainers, he became an even better tactician, placing sixth in the European Windsurfing Championship 1998, and ranking among the top five windsurfers in the world in 1997.

Martijn, who still spends as much time as he can on the water, intends to pass on his talent and passion for the sport.

"My twins are six years old now," he says.  "Hopefully, they will be windsurfing this summer on the Ijsselmeer with a teeny sail."

Most Memorable Moments

Here are three reasons why Martijn Van Geemen says competitive windsurfing has been "one big, fantastic journey I dreamed of as a kid."

  • "My training partner and I were the only two people on the water early one morning in South Africa's Port Elizabeth and ended up in a school of about 200 dolphins. We sailed with them to the end of the bay and then they disappeared into the horizon. The next day we had the same experience with a group of 15 hammerhead sharks."
  • "We raced in New Caledonia for several days, windsurfing from one island to another, cruising past the most beautiful white beaches with palm trees everywhere and a strong trade wind blowing every day. When I crossed the finish line, they would cut me a fresh coconut for a drink."
  • "To be closer to the open sea race course at the 1996 Olympics, I moved from the Olympic Village in Atlanta to the "Olympic Sailing Village" in Savannah on the first day it opened. I wanted to try out the shuttle service to the harbor, so I got into the very first bus scheduled. I was the only person in there and sat down next to the driver. A "motorcade" of five police cars and 10 motorcycles with flashing lights and sirens on escorted the two of us all the way from the hotel to the harbor. I had the ride of my life and felt like the president."