Name: Bas Verwijlen
Country: The Netherlands
Sport: Fencing (Epee)
Years in the sport: 30 years
How did you get started in your sport?
As a baby my parents took me to the fencing club of my grandfather in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands and later my father started his own fencing club in the Netherlands. As soon as I could walk I was playing around with a small epee that my father specially made for me.
When I was 5 years old I could officially start with the sport and attend the training at the club. My father was National champion in fencing, my sister as well. My mother, uncle, aunt and cousin’s all practiced fencing.
What is your next big goal?
My next goal is the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Hopefully that will be my 4th Olympics.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Our daughter was born 1,5 years ago and my wife and I are enjoying the time together. We would like to expand the family, so if we are blessed, in 5 years there could be some more Verwijlen’s on the planet.
Very often groups and companies are hiring me because they are interested in my unique Olympic story, a motivational speech or entertain them with an active fencing clinic.
I started my own company for this about 10 years ago and I would like to expand it so I can inspire and coach people.
With my background as a mental trainer I can teach people about how to use certain tools to deal with stress/tension or how to use visualization in their advantage. There are a lot of similarities between the elite/professional sport and business and I think my story is different than most sportsmen/women that talk about how they got from a bronze medal to a silver or gold medal. That sort of stories can be entertaining, but I want to give the people something they can really use in life and remember.
At the moment I am working as a recruiter for the national police in the Netherlands.
Unfortunately in my country athletes don’t get a lot of support, even if you participated in 3 Olympics. I am happy with my job because I can focus on something else and I can make a living. In 5 years I see myself still working in the Police, could be another position within the Police. Maybe my next goal will be Paris 2024, who knows! 🙂
For the technical and tactical parts I was always a big fan of the Russian Pavel Kolobkov.
Now he is (or was) the Minister of sports of Russia. In 1992 my parents took me to the Olympics in Barcelona. I wanted to see Kolobkov. All the tickets for the Olympic fencing tournament were sold out but my father managed to buy two tickets from two fencing fans. When I got inside the venue I got the goosebumps. Kolobkov was fencing his Olympic tournament and I was brave enough (9yrs old) to go under the fence and ask for his autograph (this would be impossible nowadays). I expected him to send me away, but he turned around and gave me his autograph.
When me and my father walked out of the venue I told my father that whatever happens I want to qualify for the Olympics.
The autograph of Kolobkov was hanging above my bed for years.
At the world championships in 2005 in Leipzig, Germany I lost in over-time in the semi-finals against Kolobkov. I was the first fencer from my country to win a world championship medal in over 100 years and wrote history.
One month later I had to fence Kolobkov at the masters in Paris (top 8 fencers in the world)
I beat him. Still he is my favorite fencer. There are a lot of fencers/athletes I like a lot for different reasons. Could be footwork, technique, tactics, speed, a special skill or appearance. They all inspire me. Outside fencing I like Roger Federer a lot. A gentleman and a very very good tennis player.
What has been your biggest challenge as an athlete and how did you overcome it?
I think as you get older as an athlete or non-athlete, people all experience different challenges. Me and my team had a few, but I think we overcame them quite well.
I always believed in myself and in my team even when the National fencing federation and the NOC didn’t believe in me and my team.
Around 2014 some representative of the National fencing federation (KNAS) told me and my father that they and the NOC had decided that my father (My trainer/coach) was not good enough for me anymore and I had to change trainer/coach or I would not get any support towards the Rio 2016 Olympics. The reasons why are still very unclear….
At that moment I was top-10 in the world and had just won a bronze medal at the world cup in Tallinn, Estonia and the qualification road towards Rio 2016 looked very good.
In 2012 I was the number 1 in the world ranking and my trainer/coach and father is seen as the most successful fencing coach in the history of Dutch fencing.
A new trainer/coach came and I started to work with him 3 times a day.
It was hard to adjust, but I thought that this could be the way to get even better results than I had together with my team and my father. The new coach had the same goals as I did and we got a very good relationship.
After about 9 months I found myself around the 75th place at the world ranking, I had a very bad injury (jumpers knee) and my motivation was very low.
I spoke with experienced people about what to do, because my 3rd Olympic dream was still alive only this was clearly not the way.
I decided to stop working with the new coach that the KNAS/NOC forced me to work with and to go back to my father. A hard decision but in my eyes the only right one. The National fencing federation and the NOC told me if this was my decision, that I had to do everything alone, no more funding, no help, nothing.
This was the consequence and I accepted it because something needed to change, the ‘plan’ of the fencing federation and the NOC to force me to work with another coach was clearly not good and not working.
There I was, number 75 in the world, badly injured, but very motivated!
I started to look for the best place to recover from my injury. Via a friend I came in contact with Cas. Cas is working as a physiotherapist and uses methods that are so innovative that other physiotherapists might never even heard about them. Mainly he is working with the flywheel principle. For me it was a gift from heaven. We made a plan for my recovery, to be fit for the biggest part of the qualification period (It had already started).
It was also a big adjustment for me to go back to my father again. I worked for almost a year with another trainer/coach and you would think that going back to my father would have been easy. It was not.
Another step I made was to talk with a manager. First I thought a manager? For a fencer? But I am very happy that Suuz from Buro22 helped me and my Olympic dream. Not only I had to train and give my best at the qualifying tournaments, but I also had to look for money. Our sport is not very expensive but if you want to make it to the Olympics it is. Imagine I have like 20 tournaments a year. One of them is for example in Vancouver. If you want to go with a coach you spend easy 3000EUR for food, hotel and tickets. Then there is the training, training camps, equipment, supplements, coaches, trainers, etc, etc.
As an athlete in the Netherlands you get quite some attention if you get results towards the Olympics, if you know how to use the tools. From a teacher at the primary school that asks you to come over for a visit with the kids to invitations for National tv shows and everything in between. If I wanted I could have had 2 interviews a day in that period. Suuz made sure I could focus on the important parts.
Also she helped me with my social media, a very important medium nowadays for any sportsman/woman with serious intentions.
As an athlete I am always looking for new innovative ways to train and improve myself. I found a neurotrainer that helped me a lot. After our first few weeks of training in the middle of the Olympic qualifying period I wrote history again by winning the world cup of Bern, Switzerland. No other Dutch fencer in history has ever won a world cup before and I felt really good, because all the good work started to pay off and the Olympics looked so much closer than they were the week before. One month later I won the bronze medal at the Grand Prix of Doha, Qatar together with my other results this was good enough to qualify as the first individual athlete from Europe. By far the strongest and hardest continent to qualify for. I can tell you it felt really good to have made the right decision!
Best advice that you have been given?
In my career I was lucky to meet and work with a lot of talented and professional people.
When I was very young someone told me to go talk to a sportsmarketeer (Thanks Bart!) to make a plan to get sponsors. This helped me a lot and opened my eyes to the world of sportsponsoring and sportmarketing. I did many talks with potential sponsors and big companies and learned a lot from this. I always had a big interest in the commercial part of the sport. I guess I am making the best out of it 🙂
From 2015 until now I’ve received no support from the fencing federation or the NOC. In this period someone told me to hire a manager. First I thought a manager is only for the Messi’s and LeBron James’ of this world. But I am very happy I got this advice because a manager can do so many good things. A manager can help you for example with a plan to look for sponsors, help you with social media, helps you with all kinds of media requests, etc, etc.
A KLM pilot, who is a fencer, advised me to go see a neurotrainer. This helped me a lot and because of this I won several medals at world cups! (Thanks Jeroen)
I enjoy going to parks with my wife and daughter in the weekends. Going with friends and family to restaurants or have some nice lunch in one of the great places that ‘s-Hertogenbosch has to offer. I love to play football and I love to travel. When I was younger I was only focused on the competition, now I am more relaxed and I can enjoy the journey more. I also collect watches, something that I really enjoy and I can relax with.
I listen to a lot of music. When I am travelling in my car, doing a workout, travelling by plane or relaxing at home, there is always music. It depends on what mood I am in. When I am on the rowing machine I like some upbeat rap or even some AC/DC. When I am at a very busy airport I like to listen to a Spotify jazz playlist, you see the world very different, I can tell.
Then there is Sting, Orishas, The Buena Vista Social Club, Latin, Rap in general, Dutch rap, Blues, Italian rap, Classical music, Neapolitan Jazz, etc, etc.
Lately I listen to a lot of children music together with my daughter, I am looking forward to doing some father daughter dance together 🙂
What is the best part of competing?
Fencing is one of the most difficult Olympic sports there is. I think that at top level in any sport all athletes are fast, strong, have a good endurance, etc. But the most important thing in fencing is to use the right technique and tactics at the right moment. To be able to read your opponent is such a satisfying feeling. There are no weight categories in fencing, so sometimes your opponent is 210cm and 110kg and sometimes 150cm and 50kg. Both of them have strong and weak points, the key is to find them and to use them to win the match.
“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.’’
This one I heard lately: ‘’If you don’t have any haters, you’re not good enough.’’
It made me laugh.
If you could train with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
For the physical part: Mat Fraser (3x winner CrossFit Games)
For the mental part: Roger Federer
If you could have competed in another sport what would it be and why?
I would like to be a football player for Napoli. I think it is a great feeling to score a goal and bring a whole stadium into ecstasy. Napoli is the city my wife was born and it is one of my favorite cities in the world. Football players are treated like gods there 🙂
A tennis player, badminton player or judo player would be almost as nice as a fencer in a next life!
Favourite place you have competed?
As an Olympic fencer you have the luck that you travel the whole world and compete in very nice places and meet a lot of very interesting people.
The Olympics (Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro) were very special of course. But the competitions in Strasbourg France, Reutlingen Germany, Sint-Niklaas Belgium, Berlin Germany all have a special place in my heart. Once I fenced a competition inside the terminal of the airport in Dusseldorf, Germany. Two weeks ago I won an international competition in Belgium, we fenced in a huge storage building for beer bottles. How cool is that!? Catania, Sicily is also special to me, I won a silver medal at the world championships and I also met my wife for the first time 🙂
Do you have any special warm up routine?
Of course. I make sure my equipment is checked before I start. I fill my drinking bottle with water and some sport powder. Put my music on and start my routine. I do some special exercises to get my body ready for action. Some stretching and some warming up matches to prepare.
Self talk is very important in life. Also in sport. I get my mind set for action.
What time is your alarm set for?
Ice cream or cake?
My wife’s cake.
What do you do on your rest days?
When I am not working, training or competing I like to spend time with my family or friends.
We go to a park or visit a nice restaurant. On rest days I do some stretching, sometimes I take a massage or go to a sauna. My wife tells me I shop too much, mostly online.
Last non-food item you bought?
Hmmm I like shopping a lot 🙂 Last week I bought a gift for my wife and one for my daughter.
Do you have a lucky number?
Number 1! Haha, no I don’t have a lucky number.
Best thing you’ve done in the past 3 months?
Last month I gave some advice to someone. She didn’t feel good for quite a while and I asked her what kind of medicines and supplements she uses. I connected her to a man that gives me advice as well when it comes to sports supplements/vitamins. She was very happy with this advice and she is doing much better now with the new supplements. It gave me a very good feeling to help her.
Strangest thing you’ve ever witnessed?
Maybe not the strangest thing, but it was very weird.
I was in Tehran, Iran for a world cup. The night before the competition the phone in my hotel room rang a few times in the middle of the night, but there was no one on the other side of the line. Around 03:00h at night suddenly there was a strange man in my room saying that it was his room and I had to get out. I told him to leave and he did. My room was locked from the inside, so it was very strange. Later I heard stuff like this happens more often to get you out of your concentration….If this was the fact here? I don’t know, but it didn’t work because I won the world cup 🙂
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Learning to read my opponents and use the right tactics my father taught me.
Scariest thing you’ve ever done?
Becoming a father.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what one person and thing would you like to have?
My wife and a satellite phone.
What would be your perfect meal?
Having the meal together with family and friends in Acciaroli, Italy at a table next to the sea.
Starter: Mozzarella from the Campania region in Italy with bread from Napels, Italy & some pata negra from Spain.
Main: A very soft steak, medium done with French fries and vegetables accompanied with a good red wine from France.
Dessert: Tiramisu, espresso and a Frangelico.
What performance are you most proud of?
My three Olympics. (Beijing 2008, London 2012 & Rio de Janeiro 2016)
Hardest sport moment you had to push through?
In the final of the world championships in 2011 I was very close to win the gold. At 13-13 I chose to make an action, I missed by 1cm. I lost the match. It was a hard moment to give away the world title.
What have you learned from sport that has helped you in other parts of your life?
Sport gave me a lot to use in daily life. Goal setting, reading people, keeping cool under any circumstance, discipline, respect and hard work pays off are just a few things that I’ve learned from sports.
Favourite place to eat?
Any restaurant in Napels, Italy.
If you had to travel either forward in time or backward in time, which would you choose? Why?
I would travel forward to see how our child(ren) is (are) doing and to learn from the possible mistakes we made.
If I could also go back in time I would have many questions to ask to my grandparents and other family and friends that passed away. I miss them.
What is the most unusual, challenging, or creative workout you’ve ever done?
There is a trainer in Italy, his name is Elio Malena. Sometimes when I am in Italy I have the privilege to work with him. He invented the Italian gymnastics especially focused on fencing. His exercises are so good and so effective and nothing like you have seen before. He has a special way to motivate his athletes. I can’t wait to work with him again.
When I was injured I looked for the best way to recover again. I found a specialist that works with a NASA technology and the training is called flywheel training. I recovered very fast and still 2/3 times a week I train with him because I gain a lot of power and speed because of this training.
Our dog, Lila. We adopted her 4 years ago from an animal shelter in the South of Italy. I think she has a better life now.
Dream job besides an athlete?
Next to my sport career and working as a recruiter at the National Police I have my own company. Companies and groups hire me to do fencing clinics, motivational speeches and teach them about how to deal with negative thoughts, goal setting and handle stress in daily/business life. It would be nice to expand this business and do this more regularly.
There is a series on Discovery Channel named Salvage Hunters. It’s about a guy named Drew Pritchard and his company. He finds all kinds of furniture and antiques and sells it again on-line and in his shop. This would be my dream job 🙂
What motivated you to keep training?
My Olympic dream(s)
Favourite time of year?
Christmas/New Year. All together with family and friends.
Of all the people you have trained with over the years, from whom have you learned the most and why?
As a trainer/coach is it definitely my father. He is a 4 time Olympian and he is the only trainer/coach in fencing in the Netherlands that knows what is needed to perform on the highest level and become an Olympian. He taught me and many others a lot about fencing and life. As a fencer there are many guys I learned from. As fencing is a very open sport I got invited all over the world to join training camps. At these training camps, and at competitions it often happens that you discuss tactics or training methods. I learned a lot from these conversations.
How many hours do you train at a given week?
People always want to hear that you train 100 hours a week. But hours don’t say anything.
In past years I learned to train more on quality than on quantity. When I was young I was afraid to miss 1 single training, so I never ever missed one. But now I know it is better to take some rest when your body isn’t ready. Sometimes I have training sessions of 3 hours and sometimes I have a training session of 12 mins that are both very valuable.
Best memory you have from a time when you were training?
In my career I did and I still attend training camps abroad.
The camps in New York and Tauberbischofsheim (Germany) are fantastic.
Every time I come to the club in TBB it is like coming home. Such a familiar atmosphere
there. Sometimes for a week you don’t come outside because all the different parts of the training, eating and sleeping is all in the same place.
Some time ago I had a camp in a little village in Estonia: Haapsalu. It is fantastic to see that this whole village is involved in fencing and everywhere you look you see people that fenced or have relatives that did.
If you could trade places with anyone for a day who would it be?
Maybe two people.
Donald Trump, it might sound a little corny and I am not a big fan of the POTUS, but I am really interested to see what his work looks like for a day. What decisions he has to make for example and how his position affects his personal life.
A person that lives in a tribe. I think it is good to realize sometimes how easy our life in the West sometimes is and what sorts of luxury we have, like water. Also I like to see what techniques they use for everyday life, to survive.
What accomplishments outside of your sport are you the most proud of?
I am proud that I was always able to combine study or work with my sport. It’s hard, but I managed to have a nice career as well, next to my Olympic career.
In our country there is not a lot of support for sportsmen, even for three time Olympians, so I was also forced to work and study next to my sport.
I was always very interested in the commercial side of the sport and I studied a lot and learned a lot about it. I had many sponsors and even more meetings with potential sponsors. The things you learn from this meetings, how to present yourself, how to sell yourself, etc are lessons I still use in everyday life.
Anything people be surprised to learn about you?
I am a big watch enthusiast and my wife calls me a watch-nerd. I enjoy reading about different watches and how they work. I also like to collect them. At the moment I am working together with a local watchmaker on a very special one-of-a-kind handmade Olympic timepiece.
What is the funniest thing that happened to you/others while training?
At that moment it was not funny, but now I can laugh about it.
Once during training I forgot my fencing breeches and had to wear normal sport shorts.
Not safe, but I wanted to train. And of course it went wrong.
My opponent stabbed me through my pants and through my underwear, you can all imagine where he hit me. I continued training and thought everything was ok, but afterwards in the shower I saw that my crown jewels were wounded. It took some weeks until they recovered. Afterwards we could laugh about it, only my girlfriend at the time was not too happy 🙂
Best movie and tv series?
Tv Series: The Unit, Breaking bad, Gomorra, Narcos and Peaky Blinders.
Favourite food while training?
Anything with caffeine, banana’s, wine gums, sweet bread, sports drink. I learned that it is very important to eat, drink, train and sleep very disciplined in the weeks before an important competition, but on the competition day you should eat what you like.
Results you’re most proud of?
I am proud at the fact that I am the only European fencer that qualified for 3 consecutive Olympics by the individual qualification requirements. (I had to be in the top-2!! of Europe on the world ranking to qualify directly)
I am proud that I am the only Dutch fencer ever that have won a world cup. (I have won around 10 world cups so far)
I am proud of the fact that I received no support (this is a polite way to say it) from the Dutch fencing federation and I still managed to qualify for the Olympics.
I am proud of the fact that I won the Junior world cup (Overall ranking) 2 consecutive times in a row.
I am proud to have won the three big competitions Strassbourg, France, Reutlingen, Germany and Berlin Germany in one season.
What inspires you?
The Olympic rings inspire me. Watching other people train and perform inspires me to train even more. Sometimes you meet someone that is so passionate about what they do you get carried away by their story. I was fortunate enough to meet some people like that, they inspire me. And most of them are not sportspeople. They are businessmen, a watchmaker with an incredible story, a sports marketer, a mental coach, a sports psychologist, etc.
Do you have a saying or motto you live by?
When I was younger it was this one: Hasta la Victoria siempre.
Now I have a few others:
Als je doet wat je deed, krijg je wat je kreeg. It means something like this: If you continue doing the same thing you did, you will get what you’ve already got.
It’s not about how many times you fall, but how many times you get up.
What did/do you enjoy most about your sport?
I love to meet other people. Every time I go on a competition you see guys you know for over 20 years. From Venezuela to Ukraine and from Australia to Qatar. It is very nice to learn about other cultures and this also helped me in everyday life, to just understand people better.
I enjoy winning of course. In fencing it doesn’t mean directly that you where faster or stronger than your opponent, but that you used the right tactics, this is a good feeling.
The travelling is also very nice. Not travelling economy class when you are 190cm, but I could spend days at any airport to see all the different people walking by. Some time ago a young kid of my club asked me how many times I was in an airplane. I had to think about that. I was 14 years old when I got invited and traveled all alone to a world cup in Sicily, Italy. I think until now I’ve made more than 700 single flights all over the world. Without fencing I think this would be a lot less.
Advise that you have for someone starting out?
Find a good, experienced trainer that will teach you the basics; footwork & parry. This is very important, because like this you speak the same ‘language’. Then you should fence a lot of matches in training, learn how to read your opponents and think about what strategies will work against them. In the beginning you will lose more than once by 15-0. But you will see after a while even against the experienced fencers you will make some points.
When kids or adult beginners enter our club I will give them advice, but I tell them that I will never give you 1 single hit as a present. If you want to score a hit against me, you should work for it and if you score one it is because you deserved it, not because I feel sorry for you. So in the beginning beginners lose 15-0 against me many times, but after a while of taking private lessons and learning about the tactics and techniques they start to score more and more.
What was the most crucial part of your training?
The tactical concept my father invented and learned me and all of his successful students.
My father went to many countries to study about fencing, it’s techniques and tactics.
For example in France they use something very different then in Germany.
I think in any Olympic level sports the athletes are fast, strong, have a good endurance, etc, etc, but the most important thing is to do the right thing at the right moment. Besides your own mental and physical skills you must be able to read your opponent and be sometimes 4 steps ahead of them, yes like chess.
Anyone you would like to thank?
So many people that support me and have supported me in my career.
It started of course with my parents. They gave me the opportunity to travel all around the world and follow my dream to become an Olympian.
After a while my job supported me in my goals and also a lot of sponsors that helped me.
From cars to deodorant and from job seeking agencies to professional printers. In my career I got a lot of sponsors that helped me. My coaches, trainers, colleagues, teammates, supporters, actually too many people to name one by one, because I am afraid to forget someone. At the moment my wife and daughter are my biggest supporters. My wife has always been a member of the Italian team when she was active in the fencing sport and she fenced world cups and grand prix, so she understands the sport perfectly. We talk a lot about it and it is nice to have someone so near that understands what is happening and what is needed to stay on top.
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