Five swimmers are already inside when a checkered Dutchman emerges from the wings of Tokyo’s swimming arena. Big headphones on. His gaze: charged.
As his name echoes through the stadium, he raises his hand to the empty stands on his way to his starting block. A few seconds later, his tracksuit is on the floor. He pats his chest twice. One tap left, one right. He did the day before too, but in a figurative sense.
Then Arno Kamminga (25) said he could have them all after he qualified for this final race. It became “the art of biting through the pain.” It was called un-Dutch, but at the same time it showed great determination to achieve what he had set himself. It wasn’t for nothing that he had draped a Japanese flag over the door of his apartment four years ago.
He bought it in the same city where it is now, during the world championships in 2017. Driving past the Tokyo Aquatics Center, when an Olympic backdrop was under construction, he felt the inspiration welling up inside him. The flag would remind him of that every day, of what he’d been feeling those days. A souvenir with expressiveness.
To be the best. Now his moment may have come. It is 10:44 a.m. local time in Tokyo; 3.44 am in Katwijk, where his father, his girlfriend and his sister would set the alarm to watch together. If they were able to sleep at all. Camera crews wanted to come by, but Meindert had thanked Kamminga for that. He understood that they wanted to capture ‘pure emotions’, but what about appearing in a TV report in pajamas? “We preferred to sit in the stands,” he had said.
Finding the Right Rhythm
Kamminga has to do without the support of his biggest fans, now that he can jump into the water at any moment. He knows what he has to do: find the right rhythm and continue that stroke to the end. Two hundred meters long. Yes, there’s the go-ahead. And there he goes. Like a blade in the water. Straight and streamlined.
that Kamminga. When he had told her in 2012 that he wanted to go to the European youth games, his trainer had frowned. He? Not only would that mean swimming at least six seconds off his time in the 100m breaststroke, it also required more training hours than those two half-hours in the pool. And discipline. Sometimes he went the other way.
The breaststroke specialist overcame doubts about his abilities and personal setbacks
But the breaststroke specialist overcame it. The doubts about his abilities, as well as personal setbacks, the biggest of which was his mother’s death in his mid-teens, alongside a vitamin B12 deficiency he has struggled with. Those who know him said that the water became his refuge. He went faster and faster.
Just like today. Never before has he been so fast in his first job (of four) as he is now. 28 seconds and 14 hundredths. He leads the pack, almost a body length ahead of Australian Zac Stubblety-Cook, his biggest competitor on paper, although Kamminga said in advance that all eight swimmers could win this final.
“School stroke is technically the most difficult stroke we have,” said former swimmer Johan Kenkhuis in one of his so-called swimming lectures at the NOS. The cadence must be completely right. The eyes at a 45 degree angle to the water. The heels drawn in towards the buttocks, but not too far, keeping the angle between the lower body and the thighs as wide as possible. First an arm stroke, then a leg stroke – in that order.
Keepers of swimming
They are also called the ‘keepers’ of swimming, these specialists. Most swimmers opt for the 100 meters free, including the last Dutch swimmer to win a gold medal at the Games, Pieter van den Hoogenband, now TeamNL’s chef de mission. Athens 2004. Seventeen years ago already.
Four editions later, gold beckons again in the bath. After three lanes, Kamminga is half a second ahead of his personal best: that’s a lot in a sport that is usually decided in milliseconds.
But while he only focuses on the road ahead, as he would later say, the viewer sees from above that his competitors have also found their cadence. Australian Stubblety-Cook swims to his right, Finn Matti Matsson to his left. Mighty their arms beat the water aside.
Still about twenty seconds to go. Does Kamminga slow down or do the men on either side of him speed up? Just a few more meters. The roles have changed. Not Kamminga but Stubblety-Cook is now in the lead, while Matsson seems to be overtaking him at any moment. A few meters more. Then time stops.
Kamminga emerges beaming. Fat smile on the face. The Australian turned out to be impossible to trace, but he was twelve hundredths of a second ahead of the Finn – invisible to the naked eye, but a big difference on the podium, where Kamminga received his second silver medal of these Games moments later.
The race lasted just a fraction too long, he would conclude afterwards. But hey, he had silver. For the NOS camera: “What are we talking about?”