Marianne Vos: At Peace
Over the past 15 years, Marianne Vos has won just about everything that there has been to win, but she has also had to face setbacks and her own insecurity. In her family, friends, and God, she has found the keys to herself. Love has brought her peace as well: “It gives me the feeling that I am good the way I am.”
Robin van der Kloor and Roel Wiche from De Limburger sat down for a long interview with the twelve-time world champion and double Olympic gold medalist.
There is not a line of worry to be seen on Marianne Vos’s sharp face, despite the difficult groin operation she underwent four days earlier. Instead, her penetrating eyes shimmer. “I am completely zen with myself, boys. This is going to be a boring story,” she says cheerfully. Our interview in an almost empty restaurant in Dussen in Brabant begins with an apology. “Every once in a while, I’ll have to stand up to promote my recovery.”
Of course, that’s no problem. How are you?
“The operation went well and I am hopeful that I will be able to achieve my goals this year. I want to qualify for the Olympic Games, so I have to be back about the time of the Ardennes classics. That is doable. I’m just not allowed to ride my bike for the next six weeks.”
Is that hard for a high achiever such as yourself?
“It sure is a challenge, yes. I find it difficult to stay calm, but I know that it is necessary. I don’t want to be the one who gets in the way of my own recovery. I used to find that really hard, but now I can deal with it more easily. Every disadvantage has its advantage, a famous philosopher once said, right? It’s good to take a break every once in a while, even if it’s forced on you.”
Five years ago, you had a ‘physical burn out’. Is that a lesson that you learned then?
“I now know that I need to stay a little further away from my limits—that I don’t always need to seek them. I just do the things that I want to do from the bottom of my heart. From myself. And I ask myself the questions: Do I want this? Is it worth it for me? And can I make a real contribution to it? If yes, then I want to go for it 100%.”
It sometimes seems as if you carry the weight of the cycling world on your shoulders. You owned the team for which you raced, you sit on the UCI’s athlete’s commission, shine in every discipline, and contribute to countless charities.
“I did a lot out of a sense of duty, not so much out of my personal motivation. I had to give back to the sport everything that it had given me, I thought. I managed to keep all those balls in the air for a long time, but I couldn’t anymore due to tiredness. There was a time when I did my training in-between; those were my only hours of freedom. The rest were filled with other responsibilities. I was playing a part: Marianne Vos who can ride fast and tries to make the most of her name. Now, I am just myself and try in that way to give something back. I don’t live a double life anymore. Everything I do comes from my self.”
Do you sometimes allow yourself to be lazy?
“I have a really hard time with that. I always want to get some sort of satisfaction—do something, make a contribution. I’ve just had an operation and can’t do much for a while. I miss that satisfaction now. Directly.”
After your burn out, you said that you did not want any more casual acquaintances. What did you mean by that?
“I have always had the tendency to try to stay friends with everybody. I’ve always wanted to do well. I say no more often now. You cannot go have coffee with everybody.”
Why did you want to stay friends with everybody?
“I was, and am, very concerned about how people look at me—as a person, and not necessarily as an athlete. I am proud of my performances, but that is not who I am. I even wanted people I didn’t know to think I was nice—that is impossible of course, and thankfully I’ve told myself that that’s okay. That way, I’m more comfortable in my own skin.”
Many athletes don’t give a damn about what others think.
“I’ve tried that for a long time. I became a famous athlete at a young age. Who was I actually? And in this social-media age: how should you present yourself? Branding, marketing—I don’t actually care. Business wise, that might not be so smart, but that’s too bad then.”
When you emerged, there were comments about your appearance. You thought you were ugly, you even said once.
“Aged 19, I became world champion and did not care at all about how I looked, but suddenly everyone had their opinion about it. I thought, ‘Hello, I am who I am.’ I happened to be fast on a bike, but what did my appearance have to do with that? I found that very difficult.”
Did that bother you for a long time?
“Yeah, quite a bit. More than anything, I thought, why do people have to have an opinion about it? I had to get used to people always making up their minds about everything, about your voice, your looks, your manner on and off the bike. Everywhere, the thumb went up or down. That shocked me. I later learned to only care about what people close to me thought of me. Constructive criticism I can work with, but whatever else people think of me is not relevant.”
Did the burn out accelerate that process?
“It brought me closer to myself. Nice cliché, eh? Before that, my identity depended too much on my performances and on others. From the side of the road, you can’t perform at all. Who was I then? No one. Conclusion: it doesn’t work like that. I matured much more during that time than I did in the years before when I won a lot. I realised that there is more to life than a gold medal in the cupboard. That is not holy. Chasing dreams is okay, but that’s not what happiness is all about. My identity does not depend on my form on the day.”
You also draw strength from your faith.
“I was raised as a Protestant, but rarely go to church. The basic principles of the faith are the basis of what I do and the choices that I make.”
Who is God to you?
“God created us. He put us on the world to make the very best of life. I sometimes think: what a mess we all make of it. There is so much individualism. So often, it’s all about ‘me’. The question is whether we all know what we are doing. I don’t think so.”
Do you feel that you got your talent from God?
“Everyone receives talents and is able to realise them in their own way, whether that’s caring for family members, in music, by sharing knowledge, or in sport. If you follow that path, you can’t necessarily achieve something for yourself, but you can make a real difference.”
Do you oblige yourself to make the most of your talents, to develop them?
“Yes. At a certain point, I had to stop my biomedical studies in Nijmegen. That might have been a talent that I let get away. I had a hard time with that.”
Does sport seem less important to society than health care?
“The relevance of cycling is harder to see. If I ride very fast from A to B and cross the finish line first, what do I then contribute?”
Maybe you make people happy with your performances and the way you conduct yourself in the sport?
“Yes, I’ve also noticed that there is a good bit of relevance to be found there—that you can inspire people, but also teammates, sponsors, and competitors. We do do something substantial that makes a difference, can make people happy, and give them purpose.”
Do you pray often?
“In the evening in bed, I think over my day and count my blessings. It’s not just a given that you have a roof over your head. Because of my faith, I am aware of that. When I pray, I take a moment to be grateful for my health, the freedom we have in the Netherlands. I travel to many places in the world and see that we are privileged here.”
Your family has gone through a lot. Your brother Anton had a psychotic episode, your father Henk an aneurism. You all seem to be very close. The Vos family—everyone in the camper on the way to a ‘cross with your cat Sjekkie.
“Sjekkie died in November unfortunately. We had to put him to sleep. That was sad, because she really was a part of the family. But I sometimes think that we seem closer than we are. We really don’t do everything together. Because we don’t know everything about each other and don’t share everything all the time, it goes well, I think.”
A couple of years ago, you had a house built in Babyloniënbroek and your family came to live with you. Why that nice gesture?
“My parents always did everything to make my career possible. Looking back, that was very special. All of their time and money went to the sport, and we didn’t have so much. How my brother and I performed wasn’t the priority, but our happiness was. If I were now to begin curling, they would happily drive to the curling rink. Oh shit, I totally forgot to stand up.”
Vos stands up and we continue our discussion, as she leans over the table.
“So I wanted to give something back. They deserve that too. For me, it was a logical thing to do.”
A lot can change in a couple of years. Maybe at some point you’d like a house, a garden, and a pet?
“I would like that, but I never think so far ahead. That suits me. Everything is good as it is for now.”
Do you have time and space for love?
“Certainly. What’s more, I have been happy for a while now.”
That is nice to hear.
“It gives me peace. It gives me the feeling that I am good the way I am. We’ve been together for two years now, and I think that we will face the future together.”
Is this your first long relationship?
“Yes. I have had short relationships before, but never for so long. Now I have found the real thing.”
That sounds pretty serious.
“Yeah, eh? I think so too.”
The Hard Facts
What would you like to change about yourself?
“Nothing. No, I am happy the way I am, really happy how I am. Not everything is perfect. On the inside and on the outside, there are a few rough edges of course, but I wouldn’t want to change anything. I am maybe happier than ever. I’ve come to a certain peace with myself.”
When did you last cry?
“Last month when I realised that my groin injury meant that I wouldn’t be able to race. Now, I can put it into perspective, but at that moment I wrote off the season. I don’t like to show emotion in a crowd. That’s something I learned from my parents: just do and let your emotions be what they are.”
What do you regret?
“Nothing. There were certain choices that I did think hard about and did what seemed best at the time. That that might not have been so you only realise afterwards. Those are the moments from which you learn. I’ve learnt more from decisions that later turned out to be wrong than from decisions that turned out to be right.”
With whom would you like to spend 24 hours?
“With King Willem-Alexander. I would like to know how he deals with his status and the impact that it has on his life. He never chose to be in the spotlight, but that’s where he found himself from the moment he was born as the future King. That seems awful to me, and I’m curious how he finds his balance.”