Sport can sometimes be the best teacher. Lessons are learned that can be greatly beneficial in life that sometimes help aid even the most difficult of situations for athletes. However, for Great Britain’s Ben Dijkstra, that lesson is a little bit simpler, yet has proven to be just as life-changing:
“I learned to never put my sunglasses on my head in the last 10 metres of a race ever again or have any confusion in the transition zone.”
In 2014, Dijkstra was awarded the gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games hosted in Nanjing, China. A gold medal that was earned even after a 23-second deficit out of the swim, a bike rack confusion in the second transition, an almost penalty and a closer-than-ever photo finish. And while the victory came with the added bonus of drama and excitement, the experience was one that the 17-year old would relive over and over again.
A native of Loughborough, England, Dijkstra grew up with a strong running background. Drawn to long distance and cross country racing, he saw success at an early age, winning multiple competitions starting at just eight years old. And as if he was foreshadowing the important role that sunglasses would mean to him just eight years later in Nanjing, Dijkstra used to race with his lucky sunglasses, which he believed was the reason he was undefeated in his first three races.
A few years later, Dijkstra decided he wanted to try a new challenge. Frequently he would go mountain biking around nearby trails with his father, so it dawned on him that he should attempt a new sport that would combine the two – triathlon.
“I used to cycle with my dad on some trails near home, so I thought if I could just get through the swim then I thought I would be able to enjoy myself on the bike and the run. So I did my first triathlon, it was a local one. The whole atmosphere from that one race, I was just hooked straight away. I absolutely loved it, I did three triathlons that year,” said Dijkstra.
Since he was an experienced runner, Dijkstra was lucky to already have a phenomenal running coach, the same coach that introduced him to competing when he was just in primary school. It was his swim that needed the most work. When starting out in the sport, he would swim a 300-metre distance in just over six minutes. But now he has improved to swimming over 500 metres in the same time, a massive jump and personal accomplishment for the Brit. Ben accredits his improvement to help from coaches and focusing on his technique in the water.
And while Dijkstra wishes he could train harder to shave more time off of his swim, he is still just a 17-year old currently in year 12 of secondary school working on his AS levels and attempting to still be a normal teenager that enjoys a social life. The balancing act of schooling and training keeps him busy, so on most days when he gets some time off, relaxing with friends or getting some much needed sleep is where you will find Dijkstra. Otherwise before and after school is when the training occurs. Luckily for Dikjstra, however, living in Loughborough has the perks of being surrounded by triathlon talent that makes the training that much easier.
“I swim with the squad here and I ride with them just when I have a bit more time and am able to accommodate my school work. Triathlon is quite big here where I am based. It is really great to be able to have some of the top athletes such as Sophie Coldwell and Matt Sharp to train with because you push yourself and are able to maximize your training, so I am really blessed to be able to live in such a privileged position.”
All of the hard work and long training hours all paid off in 2014, when Dijkstra’s career took a breakthrough turn. He was able to compete in his first international competition, race his first sprint distance course and represent his country of Great Britain for the first time. He was also competed at the summer Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing.
Commenting on his experience in China he said, “It was incredible. When I was there I absolutely loved every single second of it, I can’t stress that more. Now that I have had a little bit of time after Nanjing I have learned to really appreciate how important the experience of a Major Games is. It was just a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“I also made some really good friends that I am still friends with today. These relationships are also really important because as we all move up we are all very similar in age so we are all going to move up at the same time so we will be able to race against each other.”
Winning the gold medal was also a huge reason why Nanjing will always be so memorable for Dijkstra. His performance during the race will forever be just as memorable for those who witnessed it. Competing as the youngest man on the start list, from start to finish the race was nothing short of unpredictable. Coming off the swim, he had nearly a half-minute deficit. While he was able to push hard on the bike, a series of mishaps almost cost him his title.
“On the video it showed me doing a 360 degree-turn so I guess you could say I was perfecting my pirouette,” Dijkstra said of his spout of confusion in the second transition that caused some crucial time to pass by.
Then during the run his Dad shouted at him that he had a penalty because his bike had fallen over in the transition area. Fortunately for Dijkstra the penalty was eventually dismissed. Leaving it to the run, the young Brit mustered all his speed to pull even with Daniel Hoy (NZL). The two went stride for stride until the last metres. Dijkstra thought he pushed enough gas at the end to create a gap big enough that allowed him to lift up a bit, pull his sunglasses off and start to celebrate. It wasn’t until Hoy came through that judges realized that the two were so neck and neck that the winner would need to be decided by a photo finish.
Ultimately, Dijkstra was a fraction closer and was awarded the Youth Olympic crown.
After recalling the sprint at the end of the race he said, “It was probably the most pain I have ever been in because I wanted that medal so badly. But the win really hit me when I got back to accommodation, I just sat down and could not stop smiling for about an hour, I was absolutely buzzing!”
The Nanjing win was then just the beginning for Dijkstra. Along with his individual medal, he also won the gold as a part of the winning team in the Mixed Relay in Nanjing and then went on to take the bronze at the ETU European Championships in Geneva for men’s juniors this year.
And he doesn’t plan to stop there. With a full race schedule planned for 2016, Dijkstra wants to keep the motivation he gained from Nanjing to continue advancing in his career.
“I want to have a long professional career, right on top of that I would say Olympics and World Champs are my goals. Short term for this year at least I hope to medal again, hopefully the gold, in European Champs and then move on to Cozumel and see if I can medal there, I know I am only a second year Junior but let’s see what can happen there. If I am in good shape, then anything can happen there.”
No matter what is in store for the young British talent, the memories of a Major Games will always stay with him. Whether it is teaching him how to not celebrate too early or just to always cherish opportunities that the sport offers.
“I would do the whole experience over again. I still have the bike that I raced with in Nanjing, I hung it up in my room.”