‘It’s impossible until it’s done.’ Jelle van Gorkom – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 23

Jelle van Gorkom, double Olympian and Silver Medalist at the Rio Olympics 2016 suffered a severe and life-threatening accident. In spite of the accident, it’s impressive to see how Jelle’s positive spirit keeps him motivated and optimistic on the goals he has for his life.

In this interview, we discuss

Christian: In this interview, I’m joined by Jelle van Gorkom.  Jelle is a double Olympian and competed at the London 2012 Olympics and the Rio 2016 Olympics. Jelle won the silver medal at the Rio Olympic Games 2016 in BMX Supercross.

His other most notable achievements include being a runner-up in the World Champs 2015, where he was placed behind teammate Niek Kimmann and the World Cup win in 2013 in  Papendal. Those victories were followed by a couple of places on the World Cup podiums over the years.

In early 2018, Jelle had suffered a severe and life-threatening accident.

This interview is special, for the reason, that I have worked with Jelle for 8 years, but also because I have been thinking about doing this ‘Olympic athletes interview series’ for a long time and I was thinking, who would be the first person I wanted to interview. I felt it must be someone, who is close to my heart and decided to do the first interview with Jelle. One morning on our way to training, I asked Jelle, if he would be open for an interview, and Jelle agreed. This was one day before Jelle suffered his crash.

After that, I have put off the idea and I didn’t start the interview series. However, at some point, I thought it was not going to help Jelle if I didn’t do the interviews and I got started. And fast-forward 23 episodes later, here I am with Jelle van Gorkom, welcome, Jelle.

Jelle: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

Jelle’s darkest moment

Christian: Jelle, what was your darkest moment?

Jelle: It has to be the accident I had last year.

Christian: And as an athlete?

Jelle: As an athlete, the time after the London 2012 Olympics.

Christian: I noted that down as a question to you for later as well because I remember in 2012 you went into the season very strong. You were very, very good in the first races at Chula Vista, and then you had that crash. And this crash combined with the long recovery process also meant that you, that you would not be in your best shape and not be able to bring out your best performance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. How did you recover from that accident in 2012?

Jelle: I first recovered physically, and then I had to recover mentally because the mental recovery takes longer than the physical recovery. Because physically at some point you get to a point where you can do everything again, but mentally, it’s like you get there but then at some point it stops and then if you keep going and keep pushing the mental recovery, it will eventually come back. But it takes a long time to get back.

The mental recovery takes longer than the physical recovery, but if you keep going and keep pushing the mental recovery, it will eventually come back.

Christian: And now looking at the recovery process from early 2018 when you had your crash to now, everyone says they admire you for your mental strength. Has the experience of 2012 influenced helped as well?

Jelle: Of course, it helped. Because it makes you realize, that life is so much more than just sports. Because now I am in a phase that I cannot ride my bike anymore and I need to think about other goals in life.

It makes you realize, that life is so much more than just sports.

Christian: What are these goals?

Jelle:  To return to life as best as possible.

And hopefully, one day squat around 200kg again.

Christian: I’ll be there to support you!

Jelle’s best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Jelle: My best moment had to be during the 2016 Olympics, not necessarily in the final, but in the races before the Olympic final.

Christian: Why is that?

Jelle: Because I felt so strong back then, that I felt like I could take on the whole world, I believed.

I felt so strong back then, I felt I could take on the whole world.

Christian: And why do you think that was?

Jelle: Because physically I was in such good shape at that point, and mentally I was prepared as much as possible to take the win home. But eventually, I didn’t, I came 2nd

Physically I was in such good shape, and mentally I was prepared to take the win home. But eventually, I didn’t, I came 2nd

Christian: I’ve noted that down as a question for a later point but I think it fits very well here. During the Olympic Games in 2016, I think from the outside most people believed, that out of the three riders that went [the other 2 were Niek Kimmann and Twan van Gendt], you had the least chances of success, but you believed in yourself. And during the event, your performance was also really good. How did you do that? How did you maintain that belief and also showed it?

Jelle: I just kept believing in myself. I just pushed myself to get the best results I could get.

Christian: There was also another thing, that I had noticed when we were training and preparing for the Olympic Games in 2016. In the last phase, when we were only training with the guys that have qualified for the Olympics, I saw a change in you. Normally, you were always very present and very loud, but during this period you seemed to be more introverted and very, very focused. Do you remember that? It was kind of a switch, and for me, you seemed like a different Jelle, than the one I used to know.

I kept believing in myself. I just pushed myself to get the best results I could get.

Jelle: I think it came out of the fact, that I went through the same situation four years earlier, preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games. I could place the situation I was in, and I could take the benefits out of it so that I can perform better in the future.

Jelle’s advise to a younger Jelle van Gorkom

Christian: If you could go 10 or 15 years back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?

Jelle: Always wear a helmet and don’t always go first down the starting hill, always be the second guy. Don’t go first for the first time. That would be the advice.

Christian: For clarification, Jelle’s accident happened during practice, when they went onto the BMX starting hill for their training. Jelle went down the hill and there was a security chain, which has not been removed. Jelle went down the hill with a speed of 70 km/h and went straight into the chain.

Jelle’s success habits

Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete and person?

Jelle: To be somewhat grumpy and to be really yourself and what’s ‘eigenwijs’?

Christian: That’s a really good question, Raymon [van der Biezen] asked me the same thing during our interview. I guess it can be loosely translated, as ‘stubborn’, you want to do things your own way.

Jelle: Yes, you’ve always got to keep your head up, keep your eyes on the goal and believe you can do it. You have to maintain that quality, to get the most out of your performance.

You’ve always got to keep your head up, keep your eyes on the goal and believe you can do it.

Christian: What I have seen over the 8 years of working with you and what I believe makes you very special, you were a very good competitor. Very often you had better results in competition, than what you expected from yourself in training.

Jelle: Yes, because as an athlete, I needed that little switch of competition. I needed it because I could give more of myself and get the most out of myself.

Christian: Interesting. Another quality of you, that I believe is worth mentioning, if I look back at our training sessions, you were always one of the athletes, those younger athletes looked up to, you always had some kind of leadership role.

Jelle: It can’t be. I don’t know. You would have to ask them. I just tried to do my best, and I tried to support everybody as good as I can.

I just tried to do my best, and I tried to support everybody as good as I can.

Christian: I also, remember that moment in the last quarter-final at the Rio Olympics, you let Nick pass so that he could get the point he needed to come to the final. That was pretty cool.

Jelle: At some points, you don’t always do it on purpose, it just happens, and when it happens you start to enjoy it a little bit. Then after the race, you can celebrate it together, instead of just celebrating by yourself. I like that more than just doing it for myself.

Christian: So that moment, when you let Niek pass, was that on purpose?

Jelle: Well, Niek is just that talented that he passed me. Cheers, Niek.

Jelle’s morning routine

Christian: Do you have a morning routine?

Jelle: As an athlete, I had to wake up around seven o’clock in the morning, start the day with coffee, of course, and then breakfast. After breakfast, I check my bag for all the stuff I need for training and then I check the route towards the Olympic Training Center to see if it’s too busy or not, and then I go there. Nothing special.

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: For important moments how did you prepare?

Jelle: I try to sit back and get into myself, and to be really focused. I only needed myself and my music. Then I can compete in.

Christian: That’s an interesting one because normally you’re very extroverted. But to prepare you become an introvert?

Jelle: I need to be like exactly into myself, as an introvert, so that I can focus more.

Christian: And how did you do that?

Jelle:  To sit back and just watch my breathing and I just listen to motivating music.

Christian: And when did you start doing that?

Jelle: Around 2010, 2011, leading up to the Olympic Games 2012, I developed that routine.

How to overcome setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?

Jelle: You’ve got to look at it, but then you also have to realize that you can do everything you want to do, but then just a little bit differently. So you overcome it because you look towards the bigger picture.

You have to realize that you can do everything you want to do.

You’ve always got to have the picture of winning a race in your head, you also have to visualize a setback and then you can put those two pictures next to each other. When you do this, you can learn from the things that are wrong and you can put it into a new goal.

Jelle’s role model

Christian: The next one that I’m curious about, let’s see what your answer is. Who’s your role model and why?

Jelle: My role model is a bit weird but I look up to is Sven Kramer, because he’s always at a point that he needs to be, he’s on a high level and he always looks prepared. I also like the way he looks at himself because, after a race, he is really analytical. You can see, if somebody asks him a question about his race, he can just immediately tell the whole story and I think that’s impressive.

Christian: I remember a few years ago, you wrote in my son’s friendship book of my son, that your role model is Muhammad Ali. And you wrote that you wanted to become Olympic champion.

Jelle: I came close to becoming an Olympic Champion, but not close enough. It’s still Muhammad Ali but that’s more like a role model in life. A role model in sports for me would have to be Sven Kramer.

I came close to becoming an Olympic Champion, but not close enough.

It always seems impossible until it’s done,” that’s a lifeline, isn’t it? Muhammad Ali came up with this sentence.

Christian: And he proved it.

The best advice he has received

Christian: What is the best advice you have received and who gave it to you?

Jelle: The best advice came from my coach Bas de Bever, and it was when we went to a training camp in Laguna Beach. It was during a road ride when we were on training camp, and you could look over the beach into the ocean.

Take two steps back, and just enjoy the moment.

It was around 4 pm and I didn’t really enjoy what I was doing, so he told me to take two steps back and just enjoy the moment. I did that and everything changed afterward. So that was a good motivation for me.

Christian: That’s interesting, Merle [van Benthem] mentioned the same thing, that Bas helped her to see how to enjoy the moment.

A typical training day in the life of a professional BMX Supercross rider 

Christian:  Back in the days, how did a typical training day look like?

Jelle: I would wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning, of course, start with coffee, after that breakfast and then go to the Olympic Training Center in Papendal. Then we trained from 9 o’clock in the morning until like 11:00, 11:30. After the first training session, I would have lunch at the Center and then in the afternoon start the training at 3 o’clock until 5 o’clock. Then go home, have dinner at home and then have a relaxing time on the couch and then go to bed.

Christian: What time did you go to bed?

Jelle: Around 10:30 to 11:00 pm.

Christian: A good 8 hours of sleep.

Jelle: Yes. I needed it.

Christian: I can relate to that.

Jelle’s interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Jelle: That’s a good one. I need to think about it. But if I make this signal, it must be Dorian van Rijsselberghe. So , Dorian, it’s time for you to join this show.

Where can you find Jelle van Gorkom

Christian: Where can people find you? 

Jelle: I am on Instagram, Twitter, I also have a Facebook page and my own website.

Website

Instagram

Twitter

Facebook profile

Facebook athlete page

Christian: Cool, Jelle. Thanks a lot.

Jelle: Thanks.

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