‘You can always do more than you think you can.’ Inge de Bruijn – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 72
Inge de Bruijn, 4-time Olympic champion shares how she went from her worst moment, withdrawing from the 1996 Olympic Games to her best moment at the Sydney Olympic Games 4 years later.
Inge outlines how she sometimes felt ashamed, because she was born with talent, why she believes setbacks are gifts, and why she never went into coaching.
Furthermore, we discuss
- How she got started with swimming
- The moment she realized she can be really good
- How she got food poisoning at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and still made it to the Olympic final
- Her darkest moment
- How her Olympic withdrawal 1996 has helped her in the 2000 Olympic Games
- Her best moment
- Her advice to a younger Inge de Bruijn
- Her success habits
- Her view on self-doubts
- Her morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- How to overcome setbacks
- Her role model
- The best advice she has received
- Why she never considered going into coaching
- A typical training day in the life of one of the most successful swimmers in history
- How she felt more ‘dead than alive’ during times in her career
- Her sweetest gold medal
- What’s going on in Inge de Bruijn’s life at this moment in time
- The similar challenges in the corporate world and the sport world
- Her interview nomination
- Where can you find Inge de Bruijn
Christian: I was a young student when I watched the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and I still remember two people lit up these Olympic Games. One was Pieter van den Hoogenband and the other one, Inge de Bruijn, who I’m grateful to be able to interview today.
Inge: Thank you. It’s an honor. Thank you for having me.
Christian: In case someone doesn’t know, who Inge de Bruijn is, Inge is a four-time Olympic champion, has a total of eight Olympic medals, she is in the swimming hall of fame, broke multiple world records and is a five-time World Champion.
And last but certainly not least, Inge is considered to be one of the most successful female swimmers in history.
Inge: Yes. And I’m still the best Olympian ever from the Summer Olympic Games. So I’m pretty proud of that.
Christian: That’s pretty cool.
How she got started with swimming
Christian: You told me earlier that in your family everyone’s swimming. When did you get started with swimming?
Inge: I started when I was four years old for my A diploma and while every kid was crying like a baby, I was so excited and achieved it all at once. And from that point on, I just loved the water.
When I was four years old I did my A diploma and from that point on, I just loved the water.
It was kind of a logical thing that I was going to go swimming. My whole family, which means aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, they all did swimming or water polo. So I started off with water polo and swimming.
I preferred water polo even a little bit more because I was on the same team as my twin sister and she was really good. So I always felt proud to be on her team, but I had no ball feeling, so it was like a no go.
When I was seven years, I had my first gold medal at the club championships with the team that I started with. If you win gold as a little kid of seven-year-old, you get the eagerness as a youngster.
Then when I was 11 years, I got my first invite from the Dutch swimming committee to go to London. I’ve never flown in my life. So I was pretty excited about an eight-country competition in London, which didn’t mean a lot, but for me, it was a really big deal because it was the first time that I was going to fly.
My mom at the time had to raise four kids. She had no money to go on holiday. So it was really my first time flying and I always wanted to become a flight attendant.
I had many dreams as a little kid. I wanted to be a good swimmer and a flight attendant because then I could see the whole world. And through my passion for swimming and the passion for traveling, it was like one complete thing all in once.
Through swimming, I flew over the whole world and I’ve seen many places and many faces. So I’m a very privileged lady that I’ve come across so many countries and could fly so much in my life and I still have that.
Through swimming, I flew over the whole world and I’ve seen many places and many faces.
If I fly, wherever I go, even if it’s short or it’s 24 hours to Sydney or Australia or Africa or whatever, I always start with a big smile when I’m at the airport. I am very privileged to be able to do those things.
The moment she realized she can be really good
Christian: And in your swimming career, when did you realize you can be really good?
Inge: It was actually my first coach from my first club team in the little village that I was born in, Barendrecht, Sjef Sluijters. The very first training he told my mom I’m a really good talent. My mom told me that’s what they say all the time to everybody.
But eventually, years later, he was right. He could see the talent. He told me afterward that he saw the eagerness, that I always wanted to be better.
The very first training, the coach told my mom I’m a really good talent. He saw the eagerness, that I always wanted to be better.
I was hanging on his lips as we say in the Netherlands. I was so eager to be better. I was built for a swimmer. That was tested later also, that I had the best measurements together with Pieter van den Hoogenband to be a good swimmer.
If you’re good and talented and somebody tells you that, you start believing in that as well and I think that helps a lot. So my first coach told me about the talents and then you get your first medal and then you go higher and higher.
First, you do the European Youth Championships and you get a silver medal and a bronze medal. One was in Amersfoort, The Netherlands and the other one was in Rome, Italy. And then you start doing the European Championships and World Championships and then step-by-step, you reset your goals, so to speak.
Then eventually it’s the Olympic Games. My first one was in 1992, Barcelona, but it was a disaster for me because I had food poisoning. So condition-wise, I was really weak because of the throw-up and diarrhea, which was unfortunate because it was my first Olympics and I was so excited to go.
But you have to realize it’s such a big main event. It’s the highest level you can get in swimming and many other sports. It’s the highest podium you can perform at.
But it’s so impressive, especially as a young kid of 17 years old. I was taking pictures of King Carlos as I was walking through the dining hall. There was Merlene Ottey, who walked on high heels with a red dress to make an impression on her rivals.
Then as I was eating lunch, I was looking to the left and I saw Boris Becker. I couldn’t even swallow my food because I could not believe that I was eating with Boris Becker next to me.
It was too many impressions and it costs you a lot of energy. I was already tired before I even touched the water. So that was a big lesson for me.
That was good because years later, I qualified for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and then I knew exactly what to do and what not to do. I did not take pictures. I only stayed in my bed and when it was time to go to the swimming pool, I did not walk, I took the bus.
I only focused on one thing. I came for one thing and that was winning and being the best in the world because that was my dream and I didn’t want to be distracted by anyone or anything. That was the main thing.
I only focused on one thing. I came for one thing and that was winning and being the best in the world because that was my dream and I didn’t want to be distracted by anyone or anything.
Going into the Olympic Games in Sydney I wanted to keep my focus. That was so important. I did not look at anybody on the left or right. I didn’t even care who my rivals were at that time. It wasn’t important to me.
I just wanted to swim my own race because it’s an individual sport. So if you start looking at other people, you lose your focus on your race, and then you’re out. You don’t train four years for nothing. I didn’t let that happen to me.
How she got food poisoning at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and still made it to the Olympic final
Christian: I had actually written that down, with the food poisoning in 1992. You still made it to the final in your freestyle, right?
Inge: Pretty shocking with food poisoning, yes.
Christian: Interestingly, Michael Johnson also had food poisoning in Barcelona 1992.
Inge: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
Christian: Yes, he was supposed to perform well at this Olympic Games and he didn’t. And then in 1996, in Atlanta obviously, then he won the 200 and 400 meters.
Inge: Yes. It was always sad when on the crucial times where you have to prove, and I wanted to prove it to myself, but some people, they want to prove it to the outside world. For me, I wanted to do good and then I got that food poisoning. You can’t help it and you cannot overcome it that quickly.
So then your whole preparation, goals, and expectations are falling into pieces. But those are all side effects that can destroy the outcome. Some people get an injury. I’m blessed to say that I’ve never had an injury in my swimming career, ever.
You have to take care of your body. You have to sleep well and eat right. You have to rest, take massages, do what’s best for you, and don’t let anything take away your energy.
You have to take care of your body. You have to sleep well and eat right. You have to rest, take massages, do what’s best for you, and don’t let anything take away your energy.
But if an athlete gets injured, I find it very sad all the time for them. I feel with them because I’ve never had that happening to me. But it’s a big distraction in your whole path to improve or even to score at the right time.
Her darkest moment
Christian: And this moment at the Barcelona Olympics, 1992, was that the darkest moment in your athletic career or were there darker moments?
Inge: No. That was the beginning actually, the beginning of all the beautiful things that were going to come. Of course, I had food poisoning. Some people say it’s not just being at the Olympics, you have to win. But at that moment in my life, when I was 17 years old, getting to the final was really good for me. I didn’t have in my mind that I was going to get a medal. I was too young and inexperienced. Of course, everybody wants that and as a little kid, of course, you want it, but you have to be realistic.
Now my darkest moments, if you can call it the darkest moment, looking back, I think it was one of the best moments. Sometimes dark moments are the little presents in your life that you have to go through and at that moment you see it as a black page. But in the end, it’s not, because you have to get the struggles.
Sometimes dark moments are the little presents in your life that you have to go through.
You have to go through a difficult time; the sadness. You have to deal with all the barricades that are in front of you in order to reach that goal. It’s no fun if everything goes the right way and easy because success doesn’t come easy.
There’s no easy way to go to the top. And it’s more fulfilling if you are at the top and you think back of all the difficult times which are the barricades you had to go through and jump over. That makes it more fulfilling and that satisfaction feeling is even better.
My darkest moment was in 1996. I had qualified for the Atlanta Olympics, but I called up the Olympic committee with the news that I was not going to participate in the Olympic Games. And why you might ask? Because I didn’t feel worthy enough to represent the Netherlands.
Plus, I’ve been swimming since I was seven years old. It was always swimming, school, swimming, homework, sleep. And I didn’t feel for going out or boyfriends. It was just that because I was so passionate about it.
Since I was seven years old, it was always swimming, school, swimming, homework, sleep.
And every single person in life, business or in sports gets sort of that black page or setback that you don’t feel like doing it. You lose your passion basically. That was it for me. I wasn’t motivated, I didn’t feel good enough to represent my country.
I wanted to do what the people of the same age were doing, which was sometimes going out and a boyfriend. I wanted to experience that too because I never had that up until then. So I decided to cancel and everybody was in shock.
And, of course, they don’t take that for granted because if you think like an athlete, who on earth is going to skip the Olympics? If that’s the highest ever you can reach. I had the ticket in my pocket and I was not going.
Who on earth is going to skip the Olympics? I had the ticket in my pocket and I was not going.
So, you lose your sponsors and people are angry. Athletes are angry at you because people want to go to the Olympic games, don’t achieve it and I canceled the easiest way. But for me, I was a hundred percent behind that choice.
But then the moment came that I was watching the 1996 Olympics on TV and I was bawling and crying my eyeballs out because at that moment I realized I should be there. I had my ticket, I trained for it, but I wasn’t ready.
And all of a sudden it came up in my mind, I didn’t use all my talents yet, but I lost the passion. So I had to find a way to find that again. And then all of a sudden, that moment that I was watching the Games and crying my eyeballs out, I knew I didn’t finish what I had started. I didn’t use my talents.
All of a sudden it came up in my mind, I didn’t use all my talents yet, but I lost the passion. I knew I didn’t finish what I had started.
So I decided that I wanted to finish what I started. And I already saw the little lights at the end of the tunnel. At that time in the Netherlands, they didn’t take it for granted that I did that. So I kind of escaped with my twin sister to the United States for a holiday.
A friend of mine, who was also an American swimmer on the American team invited me to come to Washington DC and I believe in fate. So I think the choice I had to make at that time, because through Roque Santos, the swimmer, I met Coach Bergen, who became my mentor.
I always wanted to call him god, but that’s a little bit too far. But since I started swimming in the US, I first had to do a test week and in the Netherlands, everybody wants to coach with him. You can compare him a little bit with Johan Cruyff in the Netherlands.
If he walks into the ball, he lights up the place. He’s the champion maker. He had many Olympic champions, world record holders, world champions. But it wasn’t a guarantee for me that I was going to become that.
However, in the United States, we had a whole new program, new people around you, a new coach. We started doing drylands and I had never done that before. It was only swimming and two times a week, we did weight training.
All of a sudden that passion started to come back again. That is so necessary for everything you do, you need to have the passion. Otherwise, it’s worthless because no passion, no joy, and no success.
You need to have the passion. Otherwise, it’s worthless because no passion, no joy, and no success.
You cannot do anything without passion. If you’re a jewelry maker, it’s the same thing. If you’re a businessman or if you’re an athlete, you cannot do it without passion.
Some people can because if you think back about Andre Agassi, he was basically forced there by his dad. And to do something against your will, for me, it would be very difficult.
So, I was lifting up again when I started training there. In the beginning, he gave me a card, with four of my disciplines. So the butterfly, the freestyle, and the sprint numbers of the 50 and 100. I looked at it and I said that this was crazy and impossible.
I learned from him that nothing is impossible. He believed in me before I even started believing in myself. That’s such a gift basically. He knew what I was capable of doing.
He saw it, body-wise; a swimmer’s body and my eagerness and my joy in the water. I wanted to learn from him. Everything that he said, I wanted to do to reach that higher level.
And if he says he can make me a champion, why not believe it? But you have to feel it. You don’t dream about it. No, you have to really feel it inside.
I visualized the perfect race like a million times. This is a little bit like neuro-linguistic programming like Anthony Robbins. I visualized the best race and the best form and shape ever. Eventually, that was the race that I did in Sydney in 2000 and the times on that little card were also the times that I did in the world record race in Sydney.
I visualized the perfect race like a million times. I visualized the best race and the best form and shape ever. Eventually, that was the race that I did in Sydney in 2000.
So he was right. He knew it all along. But I had to start believing in it first. I thought it was completely out of my league to do those times.
How her Olympic withdrawal 1996 has helped her in the 2000 Olympic Games
Christian: And now a hypothetical question. Without that moment in 1996 withdrawing and sitting in front of the television and crying, would you have done the same in Sydney 4 years later?
Inge: I don’t think so. And also, I think if I would’ve gone to the Atlanta Olympics with no motivation, I think I would have quit after Atlanta. And I would have never been successful in Sydney 2000 and become a four-time Olympic champion.
If I would’ve gone to the Atlanta Olympics with no motivation, I think I would have quit after Atlanta. And I would have never been successful in Sydney 2000 and become a four-time Olympic champion.
It could have been all a totally different ball game. So I think I did make the right choice in 1996 to skip the Olympics because then, it clicked. It was an eye-opener basically. And I wasn’t finished yet with my talents. So it was a blessing and a gift. That’s what I meant with the gift.
You have to come across those painful moments in your sports career, you always have to take a few steps back before you can go forward again. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing. Some people say to talk about the black hole after your career when you quit. I’ve never had that.
You have to come across those painful moments in your sports career, you always have to take a few steps back before you can go forward again. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing.
After my career, it was more like life searching for your way into the normal life because as an athlete you’re so protected all those years in your swimming element. You know your coach and you know that you have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning. You train, eat, sleep, train, eat, sleep.
You know the direction you have to go to because that’s what your coach tells you to do. He tells you to go to the training camp, which competition you have to perform in, which big events you have to go to. It’s all organized and all setup.
Her best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Inge: Swimming wise? See, the thing is I don’t know what it feels like to have kids or be married, and a lot of athletes say that’s the most beautiful moment in your life.
But for me it’s that one week in Sydney that I was capable to do anything I wished for, trained for, dreamed of, that you excelled in so many ways. I was so strong physically and mentally. This is the most important thing because 80% of your race is mental.
That one week in Sydney that I was capable to do anything I wished for, trained for, dreamed of, that you excelled in so many ways. I was so strong physically and mentally.
Everything fell into place. It was magic, magic from A to Z, the whole week, but also the races. I really was ecstatic the first night when I had to do the relay with the girls and I was anchoring.
So I started as the fourth lady and we were placed seventh and thought that I did what I went there for and that was to swim my ass off, go for it and try the best I could. I touched the wall and I saw the girls standing and cheering.
I thought that maybe it was a national record. I had no idea. And then I saw a two on the scoreboard. I was thinking that it was the first time I was going to be on the Olympic podium.
I felt like I could go home at that time, not knowing that there will also come three gold medals and world records after that in that week. It was the best week. I think it was the best week of my life, if I may say it.
Christian: Well if that’s how it feels.
Inge: It contained so much. It’s only one week and one Olympic Game at that moment, but it’s so many years of dedication, hard work, all the years loneliness to get there and that makes it all so complete.
And then you touch the wall first. It’s like you want to scream. You want to cry. If a reporter asked me how it felt at that moment, it would be so difficult to explain. You have to feel it. I wish everybody on earth could feel that moment because it’s the best feeling ever.
It’s so many years of dedication, hard work, all the years loneliness to get there and then you touch the wall first. It’s like you want to scream, and you want to cry. I wish everybody on earth could feel that moment because it’s the best feeling ever.
And then to see your mom in the stands and your sister and you hear the anthem, the golden medal. That gives like flashbacks of all the past things that you had gone through and where it all started as a little girl.
It’s the most beautiful thing, but you don’t get it as a present. You have to struggle, struggle, and more struggle. That’s the most beautiful thing also.
Christian: And what did you learn from that moment? How has it shaped your life after that?
Inge: For me, it was a pretty difficult thing to cope with when I came back from the Olympics, all of a sudden I was profiled as a celebrity because I never wanted to be that. I just wanted to swim hard and be the best in the world. So I had to really get used to that basically.
All of a sudden I was profiled as a celebrity, I never wanted to be that. I just wanted to swim hard and be the best in the world.
The attention and everybody taking notice of what you wear, what you eat, how is your hair, what’s she wearing? I found very difficult in the beginning. But also you don’t get encouragement for that. You have to deal with it and cope with it.
And of course, I love to inspire people. I still do that to give swim clinics to young girls, but also to the elderly, to get them out of the isolation and for the social aspect and for health reasons. It’s very important that they do that.
Swimming is the best sport that you can think of to keep your body healthy. You use every single muscle in your body. I also give presentations to companies. Because to me, sport and business are equal.
You always have to set goals you want to achieve or even be better than that achievement. You have to cope with setbacks. How do you deal with that? How do you recover from that also? It’s the most important thing. How are you working in a team?
But it’s really nice with my success, that I can inspire people; young, old, swimming and in business. That’s why I love giving swim clinics for kids, celebrities, or the elderly. It doesn’t really matter.
And the presentations that I do or motivational speaker that I am for companies because it’s a privilege to do that and share my experiences that it’s not all shiny and bright, only winning gold medals.
It’s a privilege to share my experiences that it’s not all shiny and bright, only winning gold medals.
There’s a long path that you have to deal with and walk or swim in my case to get to the highest level. It’s not easy, but it’s fun at the end.
Christian: Once you’re there, it’s fun.
Her advice to a younger Inge de Bruijn
Christian: So imagine you can go back in time 10, 15, or 20 years and you meet the younger Inge. What advice would you give her?
Inge: It would be the same advice that my mom gave me, just to enjoy and have fun. Of course, now at the age of 46, you have so much more know-how and knowledge in your baggage. Maybe I did things sometimes a little rushed.
Enjoy and have fun.
I skipped practices when I was young, but it’s also okay. You’re young, but if you’re a top athlete, like a professional swimmer or athlete or whatever, then you have to make duty concessions, I believe.
Christian: I saw in an interview you said you were very harsh with others and even more harsh on yourself.
Inge: No, I’m not harsh on others. It’s more that I wanted a coach to be harsh on me. I needed that because, in The Netherlands, it’s a lot of times the case that the athlete has a lot of conversations and say with the coach in where to go and which swimming races or meets they’re going to go to.
In the United States with Coach Bergen, it was never like that. He is the boss. He decides what’s going to happen. It’s his way or the highway and you have to obey, which I find very nice to work that way.
But I give a lot of compliments to people. I love giving compliments, especially to younger kids, but also to a man or a female. It doesn’t matter. But for me, I’m very critical to myself. I guess that’s an athlete thing.
I give a lot of compliments to people. I love giving compliments. But for me, I’m very critical to myself. I guess that’s an athlete thing.
As an athlete, you have to be critical. In the Netherlands, you always get compliments. What a fabulous technique, what a talent. And all of a sudden it goes one ear in, the other one out because it doesn’t do anything for you.
When I started training in the United States, I never did anything good. I get one compliment in two and a half months and I didn’t know how fast I wanted to go back to the hotel, write my whole practice down, and then a big smiley face underneath because I deserved the compliment.
You have to work for a medal or a compliment. That works for me. But I’ve been asked to do a training camp, to be Head Coach of a country, Egypt, a while ago. But I think I’m the worst Head Coach ever for an elite swim team because I’m really harsh on me, but never on others swimming wise.
If somebody would complain that they have a headache, I would tell them that they can go home. So I’m a tough cookie for myself, which is okay, but to others, I think I’m too soft. I’m a softy for that.
Christian: I asked that because I wrote this down when I did my research. And just now, when I was waiting for you outside, I saw you were the nicest person out there. You always take time for the kids who want to take a photo with you.
Inge: No, but the press doesn’t always have it at the right end. There are many things written about me that are right and only my close circle knows. For example, I’ve been also called a diva.
People who really know me, know that I’m always in my jeans and my sweatpants, with no makeup. I do the groceries; it’s no problem for me. I’m not in a gala dress every day with my hair well done. No, I’m not that type of person.
But if I have to go to a gala and there’s a dress code, of course, you do that. But I still live here in this little village where I was born and my mom always raised me with great values and norms. And that’s to be kind to others and never forget to give your own opinion.
As we say in The Netherlands, in Rotterdam, we have our heart on our tongue and we pull our sleeves up and work for it. That’s my motto. And if you are self-secure like you’re secured of your case and outspoken, people find it frightening sometimes, but it’s the most honest way you can get.
My mom raised me with great values and norms. To be kind to others and never forget to give your own opinion. We have our heart on our tongue and we pull our sleeves up and work for it.
I prefer that than to be surrounded by sneaky people who tell you in your face that you’re nice, but in your back, as soon as you turn around, they stab you with a knife; the backstabbing thing. I like real people and honesty.
My mom always said if you were going after all the gold medals and if you start changing like you started to be arrogant. Or a little bit too much with your head up in the sky, then you don’t even have to come in my house again. And I always remember that.
It shouldn’t be this way. I’m not more special than the guy who picks up the trash. I never put myself above, but I also never put myself underneath. We’re all equal. And that’s the nice thing about the lessons I learned in the United States with Coach Bergen.
Everybody was equal. Nobody’s better because you’re an Olympic champion. Everybody trains hard, although, sometimes I felt pretty ashamed sometimes because I was born with a talent.
And, of course, you also have to do the hard work and dedication and everything. But there were many girls and boys who did the same training as me in the United States but did not even go to the Nationals.
Sometimes I felt ashamed because I was born with a talent. There were many girls and boys who did the same training as me but did not even go to the Nationals.
I found it very difficult and sometimes I felt ashamed that I was the lucky one with the talent and I could go there and some didn’t. And it’s always nice to be rewarded for all the hard work you put in.
I think if I didn’t have the talent and I was that level, I would have quit already when I was young. You want to be rewarded with a medal or with a shoulder clap or something and this was not always money-wise.
Her success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete?
Inge: I think habits has a different meaning for everybody. For swimmers, I think habits are all the same thing. For me, I woke up at 4:30 and I was in the water at 5:00.
I train, eat, sleep, train, eat sleep and it could be rope climbing with no legs, biking, or running an hour. I hated running, but I did it. Everybody would have left already when I came back to the pool.
You eat well, sleep well, and take care of your body. Always believe and see that goal in front of you. You don’t have to live it every day. Don’t be too busy with that thought, but keep it in the back of your mind.
Always believe and see that goal in front of you.
That’s what I would do and that’s what I did. You had to keep the focus always. You can have fun. You can sometimes go to the cinema. That was my only fun thing. Or I went out to dinner alone.
But I was at the right place because we went from Washington, DC, Virginia, and then my American coach wanted to move to Portland, Oregon. Inky was my nickname. He told me that he would totally understand if I don’t want to travel with him because if I’m not depressed, I’ll get depressed there because it only rained and poured nonstop.
But for me, it was the best place I could be for the focus. There was nothing except rain. There were mountains and the swimming pool.
It was the perfect place. I think if I would’ve gone swimming in Miami or LA, it would have been nothing for me. I wouldn’t have succeeded because you have too many distractions.
Her view on self-doubts
Christian: I saw in an interview recently where I guess you attended some camp or retreat. Then one thing I found really interesting, you said in this retreat that you learned tools that you can use when you have difficulties believing in yourself. For all the people watching, with all you have achieved, do you have difficulties believing in yourself?
Inge: Sometimes I do. Yes, of course. Also, successful people have their doubts and insecurities. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think athletes are insecure people. But you’d never show to the outside world. That keeps you eager and sharp.
Also successful people have their doubts and insecurities. I think athletes are insecure people. But you’d never show to the outside world.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But I build it this way that when I went into Sydney, the 2000 Olympic games, I was overloaded with confidence and I was so ready, it was ridiculous. But then still, of course, I was nervous, but you don’t show it. You put it aside.
I need the pressure from the audience, from the press, and from myself to perform. I cannot live without pressure. And of course, life is a totally different ball game.
You come across cruelty because it’s a cruel world. People can be really mean. And because the swimming world was so safe and secure and that is what you know for your whole life, you never get hurt basically.
You can only feel hurt when you lose a race or when you feel that race wasn’t what you were expecting or you hoped for. But in real life, it’s out of your hand. You have to learn to cope with it basically. I found it very hard sometimes to lose friends or with any circumstances, yes, sometimes, anyone can be insecure.
I remember what Kevin Costner said about Whitney Houston. She was very insecure with The Bodyguard, the movie, and she always asking if she was doing it well or if it was okay. But I think that’s the positive insecurity. You always want to be better.
And that’s what you want in the sport. You want to always do better than you can and that’s the drive. These people are so driven, including me.
So there’s nothing wrong with insecurity and, of course, I sometimes felt a little lost by losing friends or when things didn’t go your way in the normal life that you have to learn to cope and deal with.
So then it’s nice to have the tools that I learned in the retreat to use them. I’m not a believer in going to a psychiatrist or a dietist. I’ve never had those things. I know it sounds so arrogant, but I always wanted to believe in myself by myself.
I know it sounds so arrogant, but I always wanted to believe in myself by myself.
That’s all those things I’ve learned from Coach Bergen. So all the tools he gave me, I can use in normal life as well and that’s a big, big lesson in any shape or form. What it was in swimming, you can use it in your normal life as well. It’s beautiful.
Christian: Really cool.
Inge: You did your homework, Christian.
Christian: Of course.
Inge: That’s so nice to have some different questions sometime.
Christian: That’s one of the things I want to do is not to ask the questions everyone asks.
Her morning routine
Christian: I know swimmers have early mornings. Do you have a morning routine?
Inge: Yes, and I’m a morning person, it is no big deal to wake up early. Of course, I don’t want to wake up at 4:30 in the morning anymore, but automatically I wake up 6:00 or 6:30. It depends on if it’s winter or summer.
But it’s so in your system to wake up all those mornings, almost your whole life. It’s in my system, so it’s no problem.
I’m a morning person, it is no big deal to wake up early. It’s so in your system to wake up all those mornings, almost your whole life.
First I have coffee, like George Clooney. I am a strong woman, so strong coffee, double espresso.
I love my self-made smoothies with fresh fruits, fresh orange juice, banana, all kinds of fruits. I love that or my fruit. If I don’t do a smoothie, I do an apple or two clementines.
And always two liters of water are standard. I have a fresh shower, I love to shower.
And Monday morning, first thing, that’s my routine, I go to the gym and train my ass off for two or two and a half hour. I love it. It is the best start of the week for me.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
Inge: I started to learn about visualization. Not only visualizing the race but also visualizing the preparation going into the Olympics, for example. I always had a rap or hip hop songs blasting through the speakers to pump me up.
I started to learn about visualization. Not only visualizing the race but also visualizing the preparation going into the Olympics.
When I was still in the Olympic village in my room, after lunch, I always wanted to take a really hot bath because if you have stress, you always get tense. You feel the nervousness and you know you need to perform. So I always get it in my neck and shoulders and my upper legs and you need those two to perform well.
So what I do is a really hot bath and what I hear recently that everybody’s taking those ice baths, baths, but I couldn’t cope with that. I’m happy that was after I stopped swimming because I would have cramped up immediately.
But anyway, a hot bath, then I put on all the warm clothes I have, like gloves, socks, and big clothes. Then you visualize it when you go on the bus to the pool, sitting on a bus going to the pool and then you look for your spot to prepare yourself to do the warming up.
Then you do the warm-up in the swimming pool. It felt like as soon as I touched the water, basically all the tension and weight fell off my shoulders. Then you get in the mood. You feel like you are getting ready. It’s like “Oh, I so want to swim right now at this moment.”
You get out and then it’s focus, focus, focus. That’s basically it. Nobody could disturb me. It was “lane four representing the Netherlands, world record holder”, you hear the whole stadium and I was ready.
I felt always that’s a big difference, I think, with some other athletes who don’t succeed. I’ve learned that through the years to go to the pool and visualize and I act like the whole audience came for just for me. Who cares? If that makes you feel better, do it.
I act like the whole audience came for just for me. Who cares? If that makes you feel better, do it.
Also, see yourself winning. Visualize those things; not on the day itself, but way before. You have to go to the starting block and say like, “This is the moment. This is the time to shine. I finally can show what I’ve trained for all these years.”
But most of the athletes are too scared. They enter the swimming pool and it’s their time to shine and they’re like, “Oh my God! No, no. Now I have to go. Now I have to do it.” You’ve already lost the race, right there. It’s a mindset. It’s so important to have that right.
You have to go to the starting block and say like, “This is the moment. This is the time to shine. I finally can show what I’ve trained for all these years.” It’s a mindset. It’s so important to have that right.
Christian: There’s something I was thinking about. In swimming, you come into the arena and then everyone sits on his or her chair and then for some time you sit there and have to wait.
Inge: It’s more in the ready room where the intimidating games play. I’ve never had to do that because I could always trust my own achievements. So if you train hard and well and you have no doubts, you don’t need to intimidate people.
If you train hard and well and you have no doubts, you don’t need to intimidate people.
That’s for athletes who didn’t do every training and who don’t have confidence. No, it’s true. They are the ones who take others down in order to maybe win. I think that’s a really bad habit. So you need to exit your rival in order to win. I think that’s a nasty thing. I’ve had it happen one time.
Christian: It happened to you?
Inge: Yes, it was in the semifinal at Olympic Games in Sydney. One girl spat in my lane and in a split second you have to reset your brain and think and focus. But you don’t expect somebody to spit in your lane and she did.
So I was trained by my American coach to never let anything happen or disturb you in your race of becoming a champion. So I exhaled and I started thinking about why I was there. I then told myself that I was there to win and to do the race for 100%.
And it was there. No words, but let your stroke speak and do your job in the water. I smashed the world record in that race. And she lost all her sponsorships because they felt ashamed for her actions.
In the semifinal at the Olympic Games in Sydney. One girl spat in my lane and in a split second you have to reset your brain and focus. I then told myself that I was there to win and let my strokes speak. I smashed the world record in that race.
It’s never good to intimidate. Just work hard yourself and you don’t need to intimidate other people. But it did happen. Yes, it happened to me, unfortunately, but I still won though.
Christian: Well, it didn’t work then to intimidate you, if you break the world record.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Inge: I’ve learned that years ago, of course. It’s always easier when they say if you have a setback to think positively. And of course, everybody has their setbacks. But it’s true, you never give up. Just never give up.
You never give up. Just never give up.
You can have a cry baby day. You can cry whatever you want and as long as you want, but then you have to say, “Okay, no more, this is it. Boom!” And from here on, we go and think positively again.
And you can use those tools. Be happy when you wake up and the sun shines. Be happy that you are healthy enough to be an athlete and even do the things you love.
But you have to redefine yourself. You have to find your passion back if that was gone. But you can always overcome setbacks. I don’t say it’s easy because I’ve had it, but after a setback always flows something positive.
I’m an example of that. Nobody believed in me anymore and then Sydney came and it was my best event ever in my life. So sometimes you have to be a loner and deal with it yourself.
After a setback always flows something positive. I’m an example of that. Nobody believed in me anymore and then Sydney came and it was my best event ever in my life.
Sometimes nobody can help you. They can push you a little bit in the right direction, but you always have to do it yourself. This world is a nice place with many cultures and nice people, but in the end, you’re born alone and you go alone.
You have to do it yourself. I’m a little bit lucky because I’m a twin sister, so I wasn’t born alone. But no, I feel really blessed that I’ve done it my way.
I feel really blessed that I’ve done it my way.
I’m pretty pleased with it.
Her role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Inge: I have three. The first one is my mom. She raised four children by herself. I think I have the courage and the power to never give up on her because my father wasn’t there.
And the second one is my first coach when I was seven. He already made me believe that I was a talent. I think that’s also my first experience of thinking positive and that things can happen if somebody believes in you.
You can flow into that thought also. You also can start believing in you and step-by-step, you set your goals a little higher and sharper.
Things can happen if somebody believes in you. You also start believing in you and step-by-step, you set your goals a little higher and sharper.
And then, of course, in the end, the man I have to thank the most in my sports career is Coach Bergen. He made me the person that I am today with all the lessons learned.
His vision of me becoming a true athlete and not only a champion, but a true athlete with norms. He taught me how to think right the positive way, even in struggling. Oh, I miss him. I think of him every day.
So I’m really, really thankful and I still feel sad that he couldn’t be there at the moment that I was at my best at the Olympics in Sydney. The Dutch Federation didn’t let him come to be my coach. But I just hope he’s proud and it’s because of him that I could do this. I’m very thankful.
Christian: Really cool.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What’s the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Inge: Some of it I gave myself. I learned to do that myself and some lessons by others, like the American coach and my mom. It’s to never give up. Always believe in yourself. They’re so cliché, but you can always do more than you think you can.
Never give up. Always believe in yourself. They’re so cliché, but you can always do more than you think you can.
Setbacks are necessary to come further. Set goals, but do it reasonably. And if you’re young, of course, step by step and then you get there. There’s so many.
Be passionate about what you do and be really conscious about the choices you make. Don’t let anybody decide that for you, because you are on this earth with a purpose and it doesn’t matter what you do, but do it with passion or nothing at all.
Be passionate about what you do and be really conscious about the choices you make. Don’t let anybody decide that for you, because you are on this earth with a purpose.
There are so many quotes and models that I use and say also sometimes in my presentations. You name one. I’ll test you. You name one.
Christian: Something I live by?
Christian: One of the quotes I definitely like is from Martin Luther King and I have it on my phone as a screensaver. And it says “The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges.” I believe that, when things are getting difficult, that’s when it shows your personality.
Inge: That is exactly what I was explaining before.
Christian: I also have many quotes I live by.
Inge: I love nice texts.
Christian: Vince Lombardi “Only in the dictionary success comes before work.”
Inge: Oh no, I don’t agree with that one. Michael Jordan has so many nice quotes and Muhammad Ali too, of course. Be thankful. I’m really a thankful person that I was born even with the talent and that somebody put me in that shape and form mentally and physically to reach the highest level possible.
This was not one, two, but four times. But there’s so many I can think of. I don’t have them here, but I have them written down.
Christian: We do it another time.
Why she never considered going into coaching
Christian: Talking about advice and something you touched on earlier. I’ve written a note down here. You probably have a lot of good pieces of advice. Did you never consider going into coaching?
Inge: Yes, I did, actually. But I think I would be the most miserable coach because I’m really hard on myself, but I’m not hard to other people swimming-wise, especially kids. You have to give them confidence.
You have to boost them into their energy and confidence. You have to give them compliments. But for athlete swimmers, I believe you have to learn the hard way. That worked for me.
I would be the most miserable coach because I’m really hard on myself, but I’m not hard to other people. But for athlete swimmers, I believe you have to learn the hard way.
I’m not saying physically, but sometimes you can have a coach that’s yelling and screaming, and in my case, that was the case. But you have a problem when he’s not yelling and when he leaves you aside, because then he doesn’t care.
If you don’t work for him, he’s not going to work for you either. It works vice-a-versa. That’s why the click between a coach and an athlete is so important. If you don’t have that click, that magic trust and feel, then you should look for another coach.
The click between a coach and an athlete is so important. If you don’t have that click, that magic trust and feel, then you should look for another coach.
I’ve been asked to be a head coach in another country, but I think I’m not good enough for that. It sounds weird, but if you’re a good athlete, soccer player, swimmer, athletes whatever, it’s no guarantee that you also can become a good coach.
For example, Coach Bergen, my American coach, and Jacco Verhaeren, from the Dutch team, were average swimmers, but outstanding in coaching. They’re two different things.
Christian: You know what, I heard once, and I think that makes a lot of sense to me. The superior athletes who are very good as athletes, sometimes cannot understand if athletes struggle because for them everything comes a bit more natural.
But the ones who have been average or not the top, they can relate to that better. They know they need to work a bit harder and something like this. I think that made a lot of sense to me when I heard it because as you said, the top coaches most often were not the top player.
Sometimes it happens. We talk about Cruyff from the Netherlands. He was a good player and a good coach. But if you look at other coaches, you can see they have not been the top guys.
Inge: Yes. You see that. So there’s no guarantee. There’s no guarantee in life anyway. Not in love and not in success.
It’s nice, otherwise, you have this crystal ball and you know already where it’s going to end and where you are going to go. That’s life. You have to search and overcome things and I think that makes it more pretty.
A typical training day in the life of one of the most successful swimmers in history
Christian: A quick rundown, how did a typical training day look like? So we know you got up at 4:30; then what happened next? Coffee?
Inge: No, I didn’t drink coffee back then. Banana, that was the only thing I could eat. Otherwise, if I have like three sandwiches at 4:30 in the morning, I would throw up everything in the pool. So eating light was my thing.
Then I was in my car driving to the swimming pool, most of the time with Tupac on, “It’s Just Me Against the World, Baby.” That’s how I felt. I was alone in my hotel room. I was driving to that pool alone and it felt that way.
And then Coach Bergen walks in and he said, “Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day” to start off right and positive, but we didn’t feel like that. And then you dive into that cold water and start your training with swimming.
When you come back to your hotel and you feel like you’ve done seven or eight kilometers of training. You write that down and note that it didn’t go quite as well, but you did your best and gave it your all. You think that this is another little stepping stone towards your goal and that’s the win at the Olympics.
You write that down and note that it didn’t go quite as well, but you did your best and gave it your all. You think that this is another little stepping stone towards your goal and that’s the win at the Olympics.
So that’s how I thought. Even if it’s a different smiley face or a real smiley face, it didn’t matter. Then I came back, I ate cornflakes and bagels. Then I had to go running for an hour and go back to the pool.
Before that, I had to rest and do my nap because if I didn’t take a nap, that’s not taking care of my body. I had to sleep in order to perform again during the afternoon session.
That was two and a half hours swimming and then weight training and sometimes also running, Tae Bo and the rope climbing. Then you have one day off on Sunday. I didn’t do anything except to sleep.
Sometimes I went to bed at 9:00 because I was too tired to eat or go to the Italian who made my dinner fresh with fresh veggies and it was warm so I could take it with me. I’m a lazy person in cooking. I was too tired to even cook.
I could cook, but sometimes I was so tired I couldn’t even eat and I just dropped myself on the bed and I hardly had the power and energy to put the timer for the next morning. Sometimes it was hard. I couldn’t even lift my arms.
Sometimes I was so tired I couldn’t even eat and I just dropped myself on the bed and I hardly had the power and energy to put the timer for the next morning.
I had to have a professional massage two or three times a massage in the week. This was not like physiotherapy, but just really relaxation. I was more dead than alive basically. But you have to go through that. That makes it also beautiful in the end.
How she felt more ‘dead than alive’ during times in her career
Christian: How many weeks a year would you think was that feeling that you felt more dead than alive?
Inge: How many months or weeks?
Christian: Weeks. I assume for competitions, we talked about that earlier. There’s some taper, so once the competition comes you’re feeling fresh.
Inge: Yes, but that’s the thing. Even sometimes when I was in complete heavy training and that was the year of the Olympics from May to July, I think I did eight world records, but I was still in heavy training. My coach didn’t allow me to lower the intensity.
The year of the Olympics from May to July, I did eight world records, but I was still in heavy training. My coach didn’t allow me to lower the intensity.
Then there was one taper at a time because you can also taper too early. Then the whole competition that you have to perform and do right, then your peak is already gone. It was too early. And that’s also a trick from the coach to get that right; to peak at the right moment and the right time.
I think in my case, Jacco Verhaeren was always with me during the big competitions. There was no other, together with Coach Bergen, because there was always a conversation between them. But you don’t have to be tapered and all shaved and in shape to perform well. It’s a mindset.
You don’t have to be tapered and in shape to perform well. It’s a mindset.
Christian: That’s a very powerful statement.
Inge: Some people think that. I thought that when I was little, but I’m the living proof that you can still train like a beast and make many, many kilometers and still perform well in a race.
Christian: And break world records.
Inge: Yes, it’s possible. And then you get wings and you get that boost. You still have to go to the Olympics and everybody’s scared of you because you are the world record holder. They have to chase you.
It’s more difficult to stay a champion than to become a champion. You feel the sour breath from your rivals in your neck and because everybody wants what you’re having right at that moment. To chase another one is easier than to gain and keep your success.
It’s more difficult to stay a champion than to become a champion. Because everybody wants what you’re having right at that moment.
That’s why four years later after Sydney 2000, the 2004 Athens Olympics was so much more difficult than Sydney. Of course, it never was easy, but to achieve it again and they all expected again, like three gold medals. It’s not easy.
So for me, it was in the climax, first to have bronze, again bronze, then silver and then one last chance, I always think back of Eminem, if you got one chance, one opportunity would you take it or would you let it slip?
I passed that room where they had the cushions with the medals on it. And I was like, “I am not going to go back to the Netherlands without that gold medal around my neck.” It had to be mine.
I passed that room where they had the cushions with the medals on it. And I was like, “I am not going to go back to the Netherlands without that gold medal around my neck.” It had to be mine, otherwise, I was going to stay in Athens.
And who wants it? Who’s the most eager? I had to win that medal, otherwise, I was going to stay in Athens and not to go back to The Netherlands. I was determined to get that gold medal.
Her sweetest gold medal
Christian: Was that gold medal the sweetest one?
Inge: It was certainly the most difficult gold because your body starts changing. You don’t recover that well and quickly as four years before. I got overtrained a little bit as well.
It’s a difficult task to redo the whole thing again and even only get one gold medal. But that was my goal. I wanted one gold and thank God, I got it on the last day, and on the most difficult event, it was the 50 meters freestyle.
I wanted one gold and thank God, I got it on the last day, and on the most difficult event.
There’s a chance for everybody. The clock was on zero and you have eight finalists. Anyone can grab the gold, anyone can fail. It’s a lottery. You never know in the 50 freestyle who’s going to win.
But I knew in myself, I wanted to win. And of course, everybody wants it, but I was really pleased to touch that wall and I saw, number one behind my name and then I could go back and finish my career basically with a gold medal.
I didn’t know that at that time because I was so ecstatic and euphoric that I was screaming out loud that I was going to continue for four more years. Coach Bergen said that we would see about that.
Then I was thinking about it after a holiday and I wondered if I really wanted to continue this for four more years. I was already 32 years old. Then I had an interview and it was about the new generation and I’m a very intuitive person.
And all of a sudden they asked me if I was going to continue or if I was going to quit. Everything fell in place and I thought that, yes, it was nice. It was okay right then and I was in a good place. I thought that it was time for me to hand that magic stick to the new generation and for me to take 10 steps back and focus on the new generation by helping and inspiring them.
I could go back and finish my career basically with a gold medal. I thought that it was time for me to hand that magic stick to the new generation.
But no more waking up 4:30 in the morning training eight hours a day. I felt good at that moment. I was at peace to say goodbye to my professional career basically, and enjoy the new life. That was it.
What’s going on in Inge de Bruijn’s life at this moment in time
Christian: That leads perfectly into the next question. What’s going on in Inge de Bruijn’s life at this moment in time?
Inge: There are so many nice things. I’m presenting a brand new TV program RTL4. It’s a lifestyle program. We’re already doing the recording days. We started already in October and it’s going to be broadcast on RTL4 on the 2nd of February. It’s very nice to do.
And next to that I’m giving presentations to companies. I’m a motivational speaker. I give swim clinics to kids, the elderly or celebrities.
I am a columnist for the Telegraph, which is the biggest newspaper in The Netherlands for swimming. I am an influencer, so I promote like I did that all my life. So you promote a brand or a company on Instagram.
Christian: You also do commentary at the Olympics, right?
Inge: Yes, I did analyzing, but not anymore.
Christian: It was in 2012, I think I saw your commentary.
Inge: Yes, I did it. Since I quit swimming, I was analyzing the biggest events in swimming, so World Champs, Europeans, and the Olympics.
The similar challenges in the corporate world and the sport world
Christian: And then you said you give presentations to companies. Are the challenges in the corporate world similar to the challenges in sport?
Inge: I think, yes. It’s very identical, those two. Of course, I can only speak from my own experience, but you can see some links, definitely. It depends on which company of course, but yes, there’s definitely, and I think who better to learn from than an athlete?
Christian: That’s what I’m doing it for. I believe athletes have a lot of lessons and experiences to share.
Inge: Yes, it’s very nice.
Christian: I mean, you guys have done it. You have walked the walk and have demonstrated success.
Inge: And most of the time they see me walk in the room, with hundreds of people and they wonder what this blonde swimmer has to tell them. And then afterward, they stay there for one hour and a half more because they want to do the meet and greet and they want to ask me more questions about this and that and its satisfaction.
It’s a really satisfying feeling to have. Also internationally, recently, I did one and there were four companies who wanted to give me the presentation and now they were so enthusiastic that I have to go to London and do another one.
So it’s nice. I feel good talking about my passion and the struggle and everything that came in my career, the good and the bad things. People with a company have to deal with that as well. So for me, it’s easy to talk about it and fun and fulfilling.
Her interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Inge: Oh, that’s difficult. I have one in mind, but he lives a little bit far away.
Christian: Modern technology makes it possible, you can meet online. But yes, you were saying, who’s that person?
Inge: A big athlete you want, but who do you inspire? Who would you like to interview for your next thing? What is your dream?
Christian: I have a few names. I’ve actually Episode zero, where I named them: Nadia Comaneci, Pyrros Dimas, Katharina Witt, Alberto Tomba, Michael Jordan, Rafael Nadal.
Inge: And I had Michael Jordan in mind. I wanted to say Muhammad Ali and Johan Cryuff because those were my most inspiring two from the sports world, but unfortunately, they’re not with us anymore. But then Michael Phelps may be easier for you. But yes, I nominate Michael Jordan.
Christian: It’ll also be a challenge.
Inge: Yes. It would be nice. So good luck.
Christian: Thank you.
Where can you find Inge de Bruijn
Christian: Where can people find you? Like I did, in the Inge de Bruijn Swim stadium. This is one place where they can find you, right?
Inge: Yes. I’m not here all the time, but you can send your presents here if you like. No, the swimming pool. On social media would be Instagram. That’s my most favorite thing that I like to do the influence things on as well. LinkedIn, Facebook; I have two pages; Twitter – I don’t do much Twitter though. Instagram, follow me on Instagram.
Inge de Bruijn’s social profiles
Christian: Inge, thanks for your time.
Inge: It was a pleasure. And thank you for having me. Thanks for your beautiful questions. It was nice and hopefully you get Michael Jordan next time.
Christian: Let’s hope for the best. Thank you.