to Track and Field
Marlou van Rhijn, the fastest prosthetic-legged sprinter in the world, works towards a singular goal—to beat her own records.
“I think I could run faster. When I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can go, that’s when I’ll retire. I mean, it’s not fun to compete that way.”
This feeling that she could get faster is what drives her through her demanding training.
Van Rhijn was born in 1991, missing both her legs under the knee. She began wearing prosthetic legs when she was a year and a half old, and grew up without feeling too inconvenienced by her disability. When she started para-swimming, her talent was obvious from the get-go, and in 2006, she competed in the IPC Swimming World Championships as part of the national team for the Netherlands. In 2009, however, right around the time she entered university, she decided to retire from para-swimming. She had wanted to end that chapter of her life, and focus on her schooling.
Her life as a regular student, however, was short-lived. The turning point was when a friend from university invited her to a track and field recruitment event at the end of 2010. She was reluctant at first, but when she put on the fitness prostheses, called “blades,” and began running on the track, she felt a certain joy in her hair blowing back in the wind, and a completely different feel from when she would run in her regular prostheses.
“I can go so fast! But I want to go so much faster.”
In just a few seconds, Van Rhijn fell in love with track and field.
At first, she didn’t even know how to use the starting block. As she started getting more involved in her track and field training, however, her talent for sprinting really began to show. And part of what brought out her potential, and got her performing better and better every time, was just her straightforward love for running.
Endless Drive and Ambition
—To Be Faster Than Anybody Else
In just under two years, she had become enough of a sprinter to compete in the London 2012 Paralympic Games—the dream of many a para-athlete. And yet, this being her first appearance at the Paralympics, she had nothing to lose. The uproarious cheers of the 80,000 people in the venue didn’t load her down with pressure; instead it made her feel even more motivated. She faltered a bit at the start of the 100m event, and ended with a silver medal, but in the 200m event, was able to use her strength—her final spurt—to win the gold medal, and handily at that, with no one even coming close to her in the final straight.
“My concentration broke right before the finish line, and I heard the crowd cheering for me. I remember thinking, ‘Yes, I won!’ It was an amazing feeling.”
Van Rhijn, who had become a world champion in such a short period of time, decided after her experience in London to aim higher as an athlete. She began training under Parcy Marte, who specializes in sprints in the able-bodied team, and started re-learning everything about running, beginning with the basic skills.
She placed particular emphasis on her start, which was part of what had caused her to miss out on the gold in the 100m. She fixed a habit she had of straightening her body as soon as she was past the start line, and instead practiced holding a 45 degree, forward-leaning posture until around 30m to 50m into the race, then gradually straightening her posture and going in for the acceleration. She also upped her muscle training, for stronger, more powerful sprints.
She made good progress as a sprinter, eventually winning gold medals in both the 100m and 200m events at the World Para Athletics Championships, two tournaments in a row in 2013 and 2015, and breaking many world records along the way. She was the first female sprinter to run 100m in 13 seconds, and 200m in under 26 seconds. When she competed in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games as defending world champion, she won again in the 200m, in an easy and clear-cut victory. And though she struggled a bit in the 100m preliminaries, ending fourth overall, she managed to break through in the finals to come out 0.02 seconds before the second place runner, finally winning her coveted Paralympics gold medal.
Van Rhijn had achieved what she had always wanted—gold medals in both the 100m and 200m events at the Paralympics—and yet her drive and ambition did not falter. Thinking she still had a ways to go before she had fulfilled her full potential, she decided after the Rio Paralympics to reevaluate her training. She asked British Keith Antoine, who had trained many para athletics medalists, to be her coach. She had known him for a while, and when she had gone to him previously for advice, had always felt that his philosophy on para athletics and his thoughts on training methods were very much in line with her own.
“The past few years I’d felt like I could run faster, but that something was missing. Keith was able to tell me concretely the parts of my performance I needed to fix.”
For instance, how to “structure” her race. She said Antoine had shown her a method to approach the entire run, from her start—her weakness—into her acceleration, and then into her full sprint.
Though her main training base is still in the Netherlands, she follows Antoine’s training methods, and travels to the U.K. for about a week every month to train with him directly.
In the summer of 2017, she went to compete in her first major international tournament after switching to her new coach—the World Para Athletics Championships London 2017. Though she won the gold in the 200m for the third consecutive time, she ended up with a silver medal in the 100m. “My greatest goal right now is a gold in the 100m and 200m at the Tokyo Paralympics. London (the World Para Athletics Championships) is just a waypoint. My practice is going well.” She is using the confidence she has gained from her growth to look to the future.
Her Discovery of Fitness Prostheses,
and Wanting to Spread the Same Joy to Others
Van Rhijn says she now has a goal that is just as important to her as her performance as an athlete. “To be of help to people through sports.” Being an athlete, and training all the time, tends to make your life all about you. For that reason, she said, it is important to her to keep a wider perspective, and to try to do good through her actions.
For instance, she wants to work towards creating an environment where children have access to and can enjoy sports, just like she did when she happened to come across those blades, and discovered the joy of running. This is especially because children with disabilities tend not to participate in sports. “A lot of kids start playing a sport because their parents buy new shoes for them. If kids could get the same kind of access to fitness prostheses…”
These feelings came to fruition in October 2017, in an event called “Project Blade,” held in collaboration with prostheses manufacturer Ottobock, and sports manufacturer Nike. At the end, fitness prostheses were given out for free to 10 children. “If the barrier to entry for sports could be lowered [in terms of financial burden, etc.], I think more children with disabilities would get into sports. I’d be happy if this event could be such an opportunity for some people, and I’d love to keep going with it,” said Van Rhijn.
Her greatest goal as an athlete, however, is the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. After the “Project Blade” event, she came to visit Japan for the first time, and said excitedly, “London was my first Paralympics, and at Rio I managed to win gold in both my events. I’m certain when I compete in Tokyo that I’ll be a much better athlete than I was back then. I’m really looking forward to it.”
What kind of run will she show us in Tokyo? We can’t wait to see her out there, competing against herself and her own records, in true athlete fashion.
London 2012 Paralympic Games
200m (T43): Gold medal
100m (T43): Silver medal
Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
200m (T43): Gold medal
100m (T43): Gold medal
text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1, Getty Images Sport