Spikes10 Mar 2015

The Flying Dutchwoman


Dafne Schippers SPIKES

Dafne Schippers converted from multi-event master to sprint sensation in one of the feel good athletics stories of 2014. Last weekend she added European indoor 60m gold to her tally. SPIKES speaks to “The Flying Dutchwoman”  to find out how she did it and what comes next for the world-class all-rounder.  

“Bizarre” was how Dafne Schippers described completing the 100/200m double at last summer's European Championships and it is hard not to disagree with her sentiment.

Born in the city of Utrecht – birthplace of football legend Marco van Basten – the Dutchwoman has long been viewed as a stellar talent. Yet, prior to 2014 her successes had come in the heptathlon, the event where she was crowned world and European junior champion and won bronze at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. 

But her career was to lurch in a new unexpected direction in 2014. She competed at the Gotzis Hypo Meeting, the world’s most prestigious combined events meet, setting a national heptathlon record 6545 points for third, which included a Dutch 200m record of 22.35 – and the suddenly the focus changed.

“After Gotzis I competed in a couple of sprint events and during a relay sprint I felt an unbelievably strong acceleration, which I had never felt before,” Schippers explains to SPIKES. 

Dafne Schippers SPIKES

Two days after winning 100m gold, Schippers completed her sprint double in Zurich

“My coach, Bart Bennema, noted the same and told me it was very special. We decided that I could try out some sprint races and experience the feeling of a sprint race at a championship. It wasn’t an easy decision, but my coach and I both believe that this was, and still is, the right thing to do.”

The multi-events were quickly shelved for the season and she switched her competitive plans.

At the Glasgow Diamond League meet in July Schippers ran a blistering 100m PB of 11.03 (in the B race!) to shave 0.05 off Nelli Cooman's national mark. She went on further hinting at her sprint potential by trimming 0.01 from her Dutch 200m record with a 22.34 run at Hampden Park, taking the major scalp of Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix in the process.

The decision to focus on sprinting then appeared fully vindicated at the European Championships in Zurich as she hunted down and caught French sprinter Myriam Soumare to take 100m gold. 

The performance of her life came in the 200m final. Schippers obliterated the field and lowered her national record mark to 22.03 – a time which ranked her not only second in the world for 2014 but was the fastest performance by a European female 200m sprinter for 19 years.

Today's lesson: How to break records, by Dafne Schippers

“Before the event I had set two gold medals as my goal, even though I had never participated in so many sprint events,” admits Schippers who also receives coaching input from top US sprint coach Rana Reider. 

“I knew it would be hard and I didn’t know how my body was going to respond. I was pleased that my body took it well and I was able to grow into the championship. My body felt so powerful; it’s the best feeling an athlete can have.”

It’s a feeling Schippers could scarcely have imagined was possible after starting her sporting life as an enthusiastic, though limited tennis player. 

“I wasn't that good at tennis, but I was very fanatical,” she explains. “I used to either smash the balls into the net or over into the next court,” she explains.

Luckily her sporting path took an altogether more fruitful route when aged nine she impressed in a sponsored run and was encouraged to try athletics. It was to prove an inspired decision.

A talented sprinter-jumper and part of a Dutch system which encourages the development of multi-eventers, she viewed participating in different events as “fun” and gave a glimmer as to her potential by placing fourth at the 2009 European Junior Championships aged 17. Twelve months later she was crowned world junior heptathlon champion in Moncton, Canada.

Dafne Schippers SPIKES

Where everything began: Schippers' first global medal in Moncton 2010

Her maiden major senior championship experience in the heptathlon came at the London 2012 Olympics, where she finished 11th, with home favourite Jessica Ennis-Hill taking gold. 

“Beforehand, she [Ennis-Hill] was the favourite; there was an enormous weight on her shoulders and then winning in a stadium with 80,000 people, who were fully behind her, was a wonderful thing to see,” recalls Schippers.

The following year the 1.79m tall athlete made another giant leap forward to win heptathlon bronze at the 2013 World Championships, courtesy of setting a near seven-second personal best of 2:08.62 in the 800m.

“I wouldn't have dared to dream that I would run that fast,” she says of her two-lap performance. Then we all know what happened next.

Dafne Schippers SPIKES

Schippers after her 800m race at the Moscow world champs

2015 may be only a couple of months old, but her indoor season continued where she left off, proving herself as a major continental sprinting force. Her winning 7.05 over 60m at the European indoor championships in Prague equalled the world leading mark. Taking the sprint title made her only the third woman in history to hold all three (60m, 100m, 200m) European sprint titles at the same time.

She admits since her recent successes – Schippers was also one of three finalists for the 2014 IAAF Female Athlete of the Year award and was named European Athlete of the Year – her life has changed. The former teacher training student is now recognised in the street more, media and press attention have multiplied.

The all-round athlete has tried to keep her feet on the ground, likes nothing more than to walk her dog Noa and is developing a keen interest in photography.

Yet the elephant in the room remains her plans for the remainder of 2015 and which events she’s planning on targeting. Schippers admits she trains as a “sprinting heptathlete” – working on all the events but with “extra attention on sprinting”.

She is committed to competing in Gotzis on 30-31 May – for what will be her first heptathlon since setting a national record in the small Austrian town 12 months ago – yet beyond that she is open-minded as to the possibilities.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to compete for the medals at the World Championships [in Beijing]. In which event or events is still the question,” adds the 22-year-old slightly teasingly. 

Whatever her decision, it’ll most certainly be exciting to follow.