An interview with legendary Dutch triathlete Rob Barel

Rob Barel  Credit: Allsport
Although unheralded in the United States, Rob Barel is among the most important triathletes theres ever been.

The 42-year-old Dutchman has been racing professionally for 17 years, and as his recent Olympic qualification proves, hes as competitive today as hes ever been.

Barels resume includes six Dutch National Championship titles, seven European Championship titles at various distances, a Long-Distance World Championship title (1994), four top-five finishes at the Olympic-distance World Championship, and a pair of fourth-place finishes at the Hawaii Ironman. Of the 245 triathlons he has raced in 31 countries, he has won 113.

The Olympic Triathlon, to be held Sept. 17, will be Barels last as a professional. Recently, spoke with him from his home in Hollands countryside about his remarkable career and this fitting finale. How did you first get involved in sports?

Rob Barel: I grew up in Amsterdam, where there was not a lot of stimulus to go into any sports activity. We played a little bit of soccer on the streets; that was about it. But to enjoy the countryside a little bit my parents bought a little boat that we would camp on most of the summer. Because of that I had to learn to swim at a young age.

That caused some problems, because I was scared of the swimming teachers. It took me quite a while to get over my fear of the water and being pushed under the water by the big lifeguards. The only way I did it was to join a swimming club where more relaxed people gave me more personal attention to overcome that fear.

Once I had spent a winter in the swimming club, I found some friends, and that got my interest not so much in swimming and competition but in the whole social life that went with the club. Thats why I stayed there until I was 26 years old.

A.c: How did you become a triathlete?

R.B: The first things I heard about [the sport] were the spectacular stories I heard about this ultra-distance thing that was going on in Hawaii that took all day and a lot of people wouldnt make it to the finish line. I thought it was very interesting to combine these three sports that I had been doing all my life, but the distances were just ridiculous in my opinion.

I saw the pictures of Julie Moss crawling across the finish line and it only made me more determined never to do those distances.

Then all of a sudden it came a lot closer. There was a group of athletes who were training for Hawaii and they came to my swimming club. They asked the coach to give them a lane and teach them how to swim. They were hopeless swimmers. Just kicking or doing breaststroke I would swim a lot faster than they would do swimming flat-out freestyle. I had a feeling that I could do it if they could do it.

They came back with stories of how hard it was, but they made it. Very shortly after that I heard about this mini-triathlon in Amsterdam. I got a hold of the organizer and entered it [and won], and that was the start of it.

A.c: How and why have you remained in the sport so long?

R.B.: In the late '80s I was thinking, How much longer can I keep going? I could never foresee more than two years ahead whether I would be competitive enough to make prize money and keep sponsors interested, and also to satisfy my urge to win races because at that stage every third- or second-place finish was sort of a disappointment for me.

I wasnt sure I could keep up that pace of racing and training. But I kept doing it that way until 1994. In that year I had many problems with the federation and with continuing my sponsorships; and getting to the age of 36, I felt, Well, its not likely that I will win many races after this year.

So I prepared for 94 to be my last year. Basically, I was only focusing for Nice, which was the Long-Distance World Championship. That was the only race that really counted. I started the preparation, and even if I couldnt get my sponsorship through, and despite all the problems with the federation and their little rules and their bureaucracy, I figured, Ill just do this race and quit straightaway.

That year I won the National Championship, the European Championship, and the Long-Distance World Championship, and I thought, Well, OK, this is a highlight and maybe I should slow down a little bit.

That winter I started training just with the idea that there was no big object to it anymore. I started doing some different things. I would go cross-country skiing, I played some basketball with my wife, and did only fun things.

But also, if somebody invited me to go for a bike ride, I would go; if someone wanted to go for a run, I did that. In the spring of 1995, I was in pretty good shape without any structured training. I thought, Im doing all this training and Im enjoying it so much, why shouldnt I take it to the races and see what happens? And that started a whole new season!

A.c.: How do you feel about having qualified for the Olympics?

R.B.: I consider qualifying for the Olympics the biggest achievement of my whole triathlon career. Its maybe not as appealing as a World Championship title or seven European Championship titles, but to me its more satisfying because it was the biggest struggle in my triathlon career, and Im so proud I made it.

A.c: What is your goal for the Olympics?

R.B.: Just being there is already a big thrill and will be a great conclusion for my career. But I also know that nothing is impossible, and if everything is right on the right day and some other people makes some mistakes, then it could happen.

But its the 50 best athletes in the world who will line up there, and I could be in 50th place. If so, I have to be satisfied and grateful that I could be a part of it and that I can look back on a really successful career.

A.c: And then what?

R.B.: I hope to stay involved in the sport, whether its professionally or as a hobby, perhaps coaching people. Thats for sure. Ive been gathering ideas for the past three or four years, but I dont want to pin myself to any decision before the Olympics because thats the main focus at the moment and I dont want to spend any energy toward things that are going to happen afterwards.

I really want to spend two or three months after the Olympics reflecting on that and find at least one challenge thats going to be as big a challenge as triathlon was in my life. It could be another position in triathlon, but most likely it will be something different.

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