In Chennai, Olympic silver medallist Lobke Berkhout chats about how she took to the sport and what inspired her to dream big
Lobke Berkhout recalls an incident from when she was eight. “I was lying on my bed when I heard my mom scream. I was worried and went downstairs to find her looking at an ice-skater on television. She had won her second gold for the Netherlands. That was when my dream began,” she says.
The incident was probably in reference to Dutch figure skater Yvonne van Gennip's storming display at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Canada, where she went on to claim three Golds, smashing two World Records in the process.
Twenty years later, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Berkhout lived out her dream, when she claimed the silver in the 470-class sailing event. The seeming irony was that, Berkhout was by then the five-time World Champion (“It's hard to count,” she smiles) in her category of choice, and was a favourite to take home the Gold.
Silver is special
Here in the city as part of the lead-up to the India International Regatta, Berkhout says the Silver is still special. “The Olympics come only once every four years, so they are very special. It was a proud moment and, in any case, I am training hard for the 2012 Olympics in London,” she says.
“The winds were light (in China) and we are used to strong wind sailing. In little or no wind conditions, it becomes tough because we are taller and heavier,” she says.
Taller, was used more in the superlative sense, with Berkhout inches clear of the sailors, organisers and hangers-on who had gathered at the Chennai Port. Heavier, though, was strictly relative. Lean muscle, athleticism, poise and balance had the usual effect on the media gathered around the Dutch sailor, as the journos collectively sucked in their tummies.
Berkhout hits the gym, takes to boxing and hikes as part of her training. She narrates how on the eve of the race day at Beijing, with the Japanese team neck and neck with the Dutch for the silver, they heard a knock on the door. “A huge guy with the Japanese flag on his T-shirt was outside, and we put our boxing gloves on and were ready to throw our punches,” she says.
Her first time in India, Berkhout acknowledges that sailing faces similar road blocks in her country — a popularity joust with the bigger sports, and the time, effort and money involved in acquiring any degree of expertise in the sport.
“Sailing is not as popular as football or field hockey in the Netherlands. It is a bit expensive and your parents need to drive you around. It is not like football where you just have to get your shoes and kit and you are ready to go,” she says.
Coming from a family of sailors (her parents and her brother sail) helped, and when you have to travel when still young (Berkhout was the European Champion when she was 14) you miss those parts of your life, she says. “Your friends are in college and you miss the fun and student life, but when you come back from the sport, they are still looking for jobs and working on their careers, and so you are ahead at that stage. It works both ways,” she says.
“The next Olympics will be my last. It has been a long time since anybody from the Netherlands won a Sailing Gold. I will train hard and hope I can win it. If not, then somebody after me will do it for the country,” she concludes.