I was watching the arrival van Maarten van der Weijden at the finish near the Frisian city of Leeuwarden (in the North of the Netherlands) on televison. I must admit I was keen to see the very moment that he would touch the shore and climb from the water after swimming almost 200 kilometers with only a few short pauses. It had never been done before and I trust not too many will follow suit.
Maarten followed the trajectory of waterways that connect the eleven places in the Province of Friesland that have city-rights. This route has become famous because of the skating tour that was organized for the first time in 1909 and has since taken place in those years when the ice has been sufficient strong to carry the tens of thousands of skaters who have tried to reach the finish. Climate change has, however, resulted in warmer winters, and since 1997 the event has not taken place. Each year preparations are made, just in case . . . To cover this distance on skates means that one has to be top-fit. But swimming this 200 kilometer distance is in a totally different category.
Last year Maarten started on this marathon-endeavor, but had to give up after 163 kilometers. But last Monday evening he reached the finish—in a remarkably good condition.
Maarten van der Weijden (b. 1981) has had a great swimming career. He became an Olympic champion on the 10 kilometer during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and in the same year became the world champion in open water swimming. These achievements are the more remarkable considering the fact that he had to interrupt his sports career during four years, after he was diagnosed with lymphatic leukemia in 2000. At first his chances looked rather bleak, but he fully recovered from his deadly disease and made a come back in his sport. After having won his fight with cancer he decided to do whatever he could to help raise funds for cancer research. This year’s (successful) attempt to swim the ‘tour of the eleven cities’ netted some six million euro’s for the Royal Dutch Society for Cancer Research.
Few recent events in the Netherlands were followed by so many, with such enthusiasm, as Maarten’s attempt to do what most people felt was impossible. Nonetheless, I have some mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. Of course, I am very sympathetic towards the goal of raising funds for further research. However, why is there always a need for such fund raising efforts in a rich country like the Netherlands that can afford to spend some 100 billion euro’s a year on health care and social care programs. Can it not find a few hundred million euro’s to finance the efforts of our researchers (be it in the area of cancer or other deadly diseases) without having to resort to all kinds of gimmicks to provide them with the money they need?
And I doubt whether one should voluntarily submit one’s body to the kind of grueling torture that Maarten decided to undertake. It could easily have gone terribly wrong. I still believe our health is such a treasure that we should not unduly risk it—not even for a charitable purpose. It has been said that Maarten failed last year and that this pushed him to try again. Well, I do not think he failed last year. How can one say that a person failed when capable of swimming 163 kilometers!
Having said this, one can, of course, only have great admiration for the kind of stubborn perseverance that Maarten van de Weijden exhibited on his second attempt to swim the route of the eleven Frisian cities. That certainly makes him a role model for many.