Pieter van den Hoogenband is not only a seven-time Olympic medalist, but the Dutch great is also the only swimmer to beat both Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe in individual Olympic races.
The retired van den Hoogenband, 37, was recently in New York, in a wetsuit in the Hudson River, winning the New Amsterdam City Swim of about 1500m. That’s about 15 times van den Hoogenband’s preferred distance during his competitive career. The event raised money for ALS research.
Van den Hoogenband answered questions before the race:
OlympicTalk: What do you remember about the Athens 2004 Olympic 4x100m freestyle relay, passing Jason Lezak on anchor with the then-fastest relay split ever?
Van Den Hoogenband: I was in my best shape ever, in Athens, but I was racing with a hernia. So I had big problems in my lower back. So every race I did, I was in less form than I was at the start. I knew I could swim a fast 100. So I told my teammates, get me close to Lezak, because I know maybe I can do something special and we can win a medal.
Jason has a lot of speed, and my key element is the second 50. I was extremely powerful back then, but I think Jason used that race to get his peak performance in Beijing [2008 Olympics, when Lezak passed France’s Alain Bernard on anchor, smashing van den Hoogenband’s record for fastest relay split ever].
Like my race in Athens with Thorpey and Phelps [the 200m freestyle “Race of the Century” won by Thorpe, with van den Hoogenband getting silver and Phelps bronze]. Phelps really killed me in Melbourne in 2007, because he really analyzed the race in Athens, what happened, and he brought the 200m freestyle to the next level [winning the 2007 World Championship by 2.42 seconds over van den Hoogenband and breaking Thorpe’s world record by two tenths of a second].
That’s what swimming is about. You need your opponents. We need each other to help our sport. We’re all ambassadors for swimming.
OlympicTalk: Do you have any stories from knowing Phelps early in his career?
Van Den Hoogenband: He is such a professional. We were always together in the warm-up pool. We always loved to do a lot of speed, 50 meters, 100 meters, on race speed before [the race]. And when you have a lot of speed, it’s not nice when you’re in the warm-up pool, and people are swimming very, very slow. So we were always together. The way he developed his underwater kicking, I was watching in the warm-up pool. I was like, wow, this is something totally different.
In Beijing, he found a way to recover very fast, and how he was doing it with his coach [Bob Bowman] and his heartbeat. He was so professional. He was the king in not losing any energy. He was so focused. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was always nice to race him. When you’re close to each other, you don’t see each other that good, but you feel each other. You feel that he’s a very tough opponent. A friend of mine won the gold in judo, and he told me, when you grab somebody in the final [van den Hoogenband grabs the reporter by the shoulders to illustrate], you feel he’s a tough opponent. With Phelps, you knew. This is going to hurt a lot.
OlympicTalk: When was Phelps first on your radar? Did you know who he was at Sydney 2000?
Van Den Hoogenband: After that. Of course, he broke the world record in the 200m fly after the Olympics [on March 30, 2001, at age 15]. Then all the stories, I thought, OK, maybe sometimes you have some U.S. swimmers with some very passionate coaches. They really train hard, and they have a peak performance for only one, two years. So I thought maybe he’s one of those guys, but then I found out that Bowman, he’s a unique professor. He’s a legend. He’s one of the best coaches ever. The two of them, they made the right combination. Michael, of course, he’s the talent. He’s the man. But every big performance is a team effort. I think he will always thank the day Bowman came into his life.
OlympicTalk: You retired immediately after your last race at the 2008 Olympics. Did you ever think about coming out of retirement between 2008 and 2012?
Van Den Hoogenband: Never. It was my biggest passion, but always when I make a choice, that’s it. I knew I gave everything to win the 100 freestyle in Beijing. I finished fifth. I knew, OK, I’m not the best anymore. So now I have to focus on different things and do something else.
OlympicTalk: If you could have a dream relay, with three other swimmers, who would you pick?
Van Den Hoogenband: Matt Biondi, Alex Popov and Michael Phelps.