‘If you want something bad enough, and you work hard enough, you can reach your goal.’ Merle van Benthem – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 13

Olympian 2016 Merle van Benthem outlines how she missed the qualification for the Olympic Games 2012, how she has gone through many injuries, and what she learned from all these setbacks, how she ultimately qualified for the Rio Olympics 2016. Merle tells the story of her to date best moment and how this moment has influenced her life.

Furthermore Merle shares

Christian: In this interviewed I am joined by Merle van Benthem. Merle is a BMX supercross rider, amongst Merle’s most notable achievements, Merle was Junior World Champion 2010 and Olympian 2016. Merle has been nominated to be interviewed by the person with one of the most difficult surnames, Shanne Braspennincx.

Welcome, Merle.

Merle: Thanks for having me.

Merle’s darkest moment

Christian: Merle, what’s your darkest moment?

Merle: My darkest moment was last year in 2017 when I crashed during the first race of the season. I almost destroyed my whole knee, and I knew the whole season was over. I knew it was going to be a long road physically, but the hardest part was the mental aspect because racing had been my whole life for the last few years, and in one snap of a second I just didn’t have that anymore.

For me, at that time it felt like my whole life fell apart because I have been living in that BMX bubble for so long and I didn’t know anything else besides BMX. My friends were BMX-ers and everything that I did was involved with BMX and I didn’t have that anymore.

Racing had been my whole life for the last years, and in one snap of a second, I just didn’t have that anymore. It felt like my whole life fell apart.

And I learned that there is so much more than just BMX racing. I also learned a lot about myself and life in general. So, I think even though it was one of my darkest moments it really helped me to grow as a person in life.

Christian: What did you learn? You said you learned about life and priorities. What specifically did you learn? 

Merle: There is so much more besides BMX, and I only focused on BMX and I forgot basically about everything else. And I was so far away from my family and I realized I really miss them. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when BMX was gone I realized I miss them and I started spending more time with them and my normal friends.

Even though it was one of my darkest moments, it really helped me to grow as a person in life.

Christian: I wanted to touch on another dark moment, the World Cup 2012 in Papendal, you went out in the quarters, which meant you didn’t qualify for the London Olympics 2012.  That was a dark moment for me as a coach as well because you and Ivo, another rider from our team, went out. I still remember, and I can still see you hanging over your steering wheel after the race. What went through your head, and how did you recover from that? Because you worked for it for four years and then it didn’t come together.

Merle: Just a lot of disappointments. I knew I did everything I could to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, but I have had a few injuries that made me not make the London Olympics. It was just a lot of disappointments. As you said, I had been working for four years for that one moment, and when I didn’t make that goal it was just really, really disappointing.

I did everything I could to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, I had been working hard for four years for that one moment, and then I didn’t make.

Christian: How did you recover from that moment? I’ve worked with you for eight years now and one thing I’ve seen is you always come back, and you’re always dedicated in training. So, how do you stay on track?

Merle: If I want something bad enough, I just work really hard, and no matter how hard it gets I find the motivation inside of me to reach that goal.

And when I didn’t qualify, I went through a very low point in my life and I just reset myself. I went on vacation, reset myself, and I was determined to make the Rio Olympics.

If I want something bad enough, I just work really hard, and no matter how hard it gets I find the motivation inside of me to reach that goal.

Christian: Which you did.

Merle: Yes, which I did. And that was just an amazing feeling.

Merle’s best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Merle: Well, I have been to the Olympics 2016, so that should be my best moment. But actually, my best moment was here at the World Cup in Papendal this year [2018], where I made my comeback after 14 months of rehab. When I crossed the finish line in my semi-final and realized I made the World Cup final, that was just amazing.

My first race back I just got really emotional and just all the bad things came up that I survived that and that I made it. And it was especially special for me because all my friends were there and my family, my therapist, my coach, and even the surgeon was there, so it was very special to make my comeback by making the World Cup final.

When I crossed the finish line in the semi-final and realized I made the World Cup final, I got really emotional, all the bad things that I survived came up, that was just amazing.

Christian: What did you learn from that moment?

Merle: That if you want something bad enough and you work hard enough that you can reach your goal. And no matter how dark things get you’ve got to stay positive and keep working towards your goal, and it can happen if you want it bad enough.

If you want something bad enough and you work hard enough you can reach your goal. No matter how dark things get, you have got to stay positive and keep working towards your goal, it can happen if you want it bad enough.

Merle’s advise to a younger Merle van Benthem

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

Merle: The advice I would give my younger self is listen to your body better. I have been through some injuries that I kind of denied because I just wanted to race. And I could make it to the race, but of course, I wasn’t healthy enough, and I crashed again because I wasn’t fit. So, that’s the advice I would give, just to listen to your body more and don’t rush into racing.

The advice I would give my younger self is to listen to your body, and don’t rush into racing if you aren’t fit enough.

Christian: Earlier you said it was difficult for you to listen to your body and you were rushing towards competition. So, if you are now in the same situation, you have a race coming up, but you feel you are not 100%, how would you make the decision “I go” or “I don’t go”? Because it’s a balancing act, right?

Merle: Of course, you really want to race. I’ve learned from the past that if you are not healthy enough then it’s not smart to race. And right now, I waited very long for my comeback to start racing again. I could ride fine, but I wasn’t mentally race-ready yet, so I waited till I felt ready, when I was physically almost at 100%. So, I was just being smarter.

Christian: Drawing on the experiences you’ve had from the past.

Merle: Yes. Because as an athlete you know when you are ready or not. And in the past I kind of knew in my head I wasn’t ready, but I really wanted to race. But now I just make sure I’m mentally ready to race and then I’ll go out racing and give my 100%.

As an athlete, you know when you are ready or not.

Merle’s success habits

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

Merle: I think what makes me a successful athlete or person is that I just don’t give up if something bad happens to me and that I’ll just work really hard towards my goals.

I just don’t give up.

Christian: I have been working with you for eight years now, and I have seen you had injuries, quite a few, severe injuries also, and you always bounce back, always came back motivated, always work your way back. How do you do that?

Merle: It’s hard to say because it’s just what I feel inside, it’s just my passion for the sport.

I feel like I haven’t reached my full potential yet, and I really want to reach that full potential. I feel like there is so much more in me than what I’ve shown already, so I really want to prove that.

I feel I haven’t reached my full potential yet, and I feel there is so much more in me, than what I have shown already, and I really want to prove that.

Merle’s morning routine

Christian: Do you have a morning routine? How do you get ready for the day?

Merle: Well, I wake up, have breakfast and go on my phone, check social media, like almost everyone in the world I guess.

Christian: Before breakfast, or after breakfast?

Merle: Kind of during, just doing both at the same time. Because I have been injured a lot my body is pretty stiff in the mornings, so I make sure I stretch a bit and loosen up a bit for training, and then drive to Papendal and just do my thing.

Because I have been injured a lot and my body is pretty stiff in the mornings, I make sure I stretch and loosen up for training,

How to prepare for important moments

Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?

Merle: On race days I just make sure my body is ready to race. I will do a proper warm-up, activate my legs and then I’ll get my stuff and get ready for racing.

And normally Bas [de Bever], my coach is there, and we talk about the race. But not too long, I am not the person who has to focus the whole day on racing, because that would make me crazy. So, we start talking about just some random things, but as soon as I go up the hill, I get into that race mode and focus on what I’ve got to do.

I and my coach talk about the race, but not too long, that would make me crazy. But as soon as I go up the hill, I get into that race mode and focus on what I’ve got to do.

Christian: So, you get physically ready first, and that helps you mentally?

Merle: Yes. If I feel physically ready than I’m mentally ready as well. Of course, it starts with being ready to race, but then you prepare yourself physically, so you have done everything you could to be ready mentally and then you start going through the race and then focus on what you have to do.

If I feel physically ready than I’m mentally ready as well.

How to overcome setbacks

Christian: How do you overcome setbacks when things don’t go your way? You’ve had so many setbacks, injuries, and you always bounce back.

Merle: As I said before, it’s just determination and the passion of anything in life really. If I really love doing something I won’t give up, I’ll just keep going till I reach that goal. And even if you have a setback it’s not forever. That knee injury, it took me 14 months, but what are 14 months in a whole life? Bad times won’t last forever.

Even if you have a setback it’s not forever. Bad times won’t last forever.

Christian: That is true. However, having been through a long cycle of this 14 months it was a slow process at times.  I still remember you worked so hard and the progress was very little at times, so how did you maintain faith?

Merle: Well, at the beginning of my injury I kept focusing on the end goal, which was riding again. But from experience I realized that wasn’t really the way to go, I needed to focus on one small step at a time to reach that end goal because I was focusing on, “I want to race” and I just kept thinking about racing.

But I forgot that I still needed to walk first or do a bodyweight squat or ride my road bike. I forgot the small steps to make it to that end goal. I think the most important thing is to focus on the small steps to reach your end goal.

The most important thing is to focus on the small steps to reach your end goal.

Christian: And when you focus on these steps or you have these mini goals, do you write them down, or do you have it in your head?

Merle: I’ve got them in my head. Well, sometimes I write them down. Like, let’s say in three months I want to be able to ride my road bike or whatever it is. Some things I write down to keep focused on those things. But in the end, you can’t really rely on what you’ve written down, it’s just when you feel ready when you can do things.

Merle’s role model

Christian: Who is your role model, and why?

Merle: My role model is Lindsey Vonn, the downhill skier.  She has had many setbacks as well and she also bounce back every time. That’s a big inspiration for me.

The best advice she ever received

Christian: What is the best advice you’ve received, and who gave it to you?

Merle: Actually, my coach Bas de Bever gave me the best advice. I remember my first year as a Junior, I was really struggling with racing and there was pressure on me for the European Champs because I was in the title position.

But I forgot kind of to enjoy the moment, so he told me one of his stories when he was a professional Downhill Mountain biker. One day he was in the chair lift and that was a moment for him to be at peace and to realize that being able to race your bike for a living is one of the best things.

It helped me to find that enjoyment back in racing so that even now if I’m stressing about a race or something he says, “Just do a chair lift.” And I start enjoying it a bit more.

To realize, that being able to race your bike for a living, is one of the best things.

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

Christian: What does a typical training day look like?

Merle: It kind of depends on where we are in the season. In the off-season, we mostly train twice a day. And then I have breakfast, stretch, go to Papendal, do my training, have a recovery shake, have lunch, have a nap and then go back to Papendal, train again, recover and rest, have dinner and then chill with some of my friends who also live here, sleep, and do it again the next day. Some people think it’s pretty boring, but I really enjoy doing it.

Breakfast, stretch, train, recovery shake, lunch, nap, train, recover, rest, dinner and chill with friends, sleep, and do it again the next day. Some people think it’s boring, but I really enjoy it.

Merle’s preferred lifestyle

Christian: Why do you like the American lifestyle better than the Dutch lifestyle?

Merle: First thing, it’s just the weather, but the weather has been good here the past few weeks, but the weather is normally pretty bad. And I just love the Californian lifestyle.

Christian: What specifically?

Merle: I don’t know. Everyone here, not Holland is so stressed about everything and in California, it seems to be more laid-back, more my kind of style.

Merle’s interview nomination

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

Merle: Yes. I would like to nominate Rob van den Wildenberg. He was a BMX racer, he retired. He went to the 2008 Olympics but is now the Talent Team coach. I thought it would be nice to see what he has been learning about life and sport

Christian: We will get Rob in front of the camera.

Where can you find Merle van Benthem

Christian: Where can people find you?

Merle: They can find me on all the social media platforms –

Instagram

Facebook profile

Facebook athlete’s page

Twitter

Christian: Thanks Merle, it was great.

Merle: Thanks for having me.

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