Known as the “flying Dutch girl”, 34-year-old Yvonne Van Vlerken has amassed a fine collection of iron-distance crowns – five in total, including her recent record-setting victory at 2012’s Ironman Florida. Her 8:45:48 finish at Challenge Roth (2008) was the first to break Paula Newby-Fraser’s 14-year-old iron-distance world record. The former soccer player, who enjoyed a career as a gymnastics and aerobics instructor and massage therapist prior to discovering her penchant for endurance sports in 2000, also earned World and European Duathlon Champion titles. But beyond her athletic accolades, Van Vlerken is best known for her palpably positive nature.
[Excerpts from this interview appear in the March 2013 issue of Triathlete.]
TM: In researching you for this interview I read your blog and several of your Facebook posts, and there are quite a few things I’d like to ask you about! First of all, at Ironman Florida you drew smiley faces on your race bib and you posted this: “My belly told me it would be a good day!” Tell me more about that gut feeling.
YVV: I’m a person that’s very sensitive and listens within herself. I raced Ironman Florida because of my belly feeling. I say “belly” because I don’t like the word “gut”. It doesn’t fit me! I had planned to do Ironman 70.3 Austin and then Ironman Cozumel, but two weeks before Austin I felt so good, like I didn’t have to do any recovery training and could just go on. I looked at the map and saw that Florida is easy to fly to from Austin. Florida is like the Netherlands – flat and windy – and I’ve always wanted to do that race because my former coach, Frank Sanders, said it would be perfect for me. I did it one week after Austin and won. My belly feeling was right!
TM: Another thing I noticed was that you refer to yourself as the World Champion of Sleep. Tell me more about your sleep habits. Do you dream very often?
YVV: Yes, I’m the World Champion of Sleep! I average 9-10 hours every night. I can even do 11 hours! I have two magical stones that are from my mental coach. Every evening I put them in my hands, I have some things that I do in my head and then I put the stones away. Then I put my head on the pillow and in one minute I am asleep for 10 hours. But I never dream.
TM: Is your mental coach a sports psychologist?
YVV: He is. He works with a lot of soccer players in Europe and a lot of Formula 1 drivers. His name is Arno Gantner But I call him “the man from the mountains” because he lives in the middle of the mountains. In the winter when I go to see him I park my car below in the valley and he picks me up because I’m too scared to drive to his place, it’s so steep and covered in snow!
TM: On Facebook you called yourself “stubborn” in reference to insisting on eating outdoors although it was cold enough that you needed a jacket and hat! What are some other examples of your stubbornness?
YVV: Everybody knows me as a really sweet person, but I can be very stubborn. I get nasty when you mess with my rituals! I will change my hotel room if I don’t have a bathtub. Before a race I always mix my special oils, take a bath, massage my legs, put my compression socks on and go to bed early. When I can’t do all my rituals I go crazy. And when I have a feeling and I think I’m right, then it will be very hard to convince me otherwise.
TM: You named your bike “Honu” (Hawaiian for “turtle”), and have a turtle and Hawaiian flowers painted on the frame. What does the turtle signify to you – because it’s not exactly an animal known for its speed!
YVV: I’m not very fast in the water either, so it’s a good match! I’ve spent a lot of time in Hawaii, and in Hawaii every local person has his “amakua”. An amakua is the animal that you feel connected with. A lot of tough guys of course have a tiger shark or a hammerhead shark. I always felt a connection with the turtle. At the race awards I always have my necklace with a honu on it and my rings with baby honu on them. I’m just honu girl! And I love all animals. I have two guinea pigs at home in Austria that stay with a good friend when I travel. They are called Mädel (Austrian dialect for “girly”) and Chippy. Someday my dream is to have a dog!
TM: You were unusually absent from the Kona start line in 2012, as a health issue forced you to DNF at Ironman Frankfurt in July, subsequently requiring surgery and several weeks on the sidelines. Tell me about that experience.
YVV: Before this I never had a health issue in my whole life. I had never been in the hospital, not even when I was born. I was born at home in my parents’ bed, a shining, happy, healthy little girl already! But there was a lot of damaged tissue in the inside of my leg from my whole life of cycling. I always just thought it was swollen and painful because I biked a crazy amount of mileage, but it had grown so big that it pushed on a nerve. In Frankfurt it all came together. I had back pain and no feeling in my legs so I couldn’t run. It was a lipoma – like a cyst but way worse because it went deeper. My doctor said it would be a 15-minute thing but it was a two-hour operation. They cut all the way to my pelvic bone! That’s the only sore point now, the bone because they had to go so deep. I’m normally as healthy as can be, so it was hard for me to have something like that happen. I love to always be a positive example of health and good shape!
TM: Prior to the surgery, 2011 through early 2012 was also a difficult time for you both professionally and personally. Your 2011 race results were mixed, you ended a long-term relationship and you lost your Grandmother with whom you were extremely close. You started working with your new coach Siri Lindley in early 2012 and had a promising result – 2nd-place – at Ironman 70.3 Texas before requiring the surgery in July. But since recovering fully physically from the surgery, you also seem to be in a much more positive place in your personal life. How did things turn around and how are things going for you now?
YVV: I’m back now to how I used to be. Before I became a professional triathlete I worked as a gymnastics teacher and aerobics teacher and I was a massage therapist. People would come to the gym just because they wanted to be around me! I was always like sunshine and happy. But then I totally lost track of myself. I lost myself. I was very quiet and sometimes negative, which totally doesn’t fit me. My whole balance in my life was gone. Privately it wasn’t going well. In April when I did Galveston I decided that my relationship was done. And then for a while it was kind of like the feeling of being in love, I was so excited about my new life! But after that I got in a little hole again. I felt like the whole world was so big and I was just there on my own tiny little feet. I was a little bit afraid. It took a little time to really find the path back to myself. But now – now I’m enjoying the single life. It’s like I’m totally in love with myself! It sounds stupid, but it’s true. I’m so happy!
Professionally, I showed with Ironman Florida that I am back to myself. I think I always used to really listen to myself and had such an amazing body perception, but I got away from that for a long time. I didn’t listen to myself anymore, because somebody else was telling me I was wrong. Too much of the time, people were telling me exactly what I had to do, and I became totally deaf to what I was saying. But now that I’ve been listening to my belly feelings again I feel back within myself and I am so excited for 2013!
TM: You were very close to your Grandmother. What are some life lessons you learned from her?
YVV: I had a vey close bond with my grandma. She was such an amazing happy person. She was 98, and until about three years ago she was still using the treadmill. Since I was a fitness instructor I would give her exercises – she would do exercises for her arms and shoulders and she would go for walks. Before a race I would always call her and tell her exactly what the time difference would be when she had to cross her thumbs. In the Netherlands we do something with pushing your thumbs, like crossing your fingers, to bring good luck. Before every race she would do that. My grandpa died when I was a baby, so she had been alone almost her whole life. She was totally in love with my grandpa, she never saw anybody else. She was lonely and she missed him but she was always happy and never complained. She was just a beautiful woman – very strong, very positive, very healthy and happy. I like to think that I am like her. She was my big example. Almost every second week I would send her a postcard. She was always in the Netherlands and I was always all over the world, so now I like to think that she’s with me all the time.
TM: You really have traveled all over the world, and you speak several languages: Dutch, German, an Austrian German dialect, English and some Spanish. Do you have any funny stories about coming up against language barriers and making embarrassing mistakes?
YVV: I have a lot of stuff like that because I speak at least three, normally four languages every day. I have one very embarrassing example! When I first moved to Austria I didn’t speak German. But I’m a very fast student. I just copy people. I would listen and pay attention to my boyfriend at that time, remember the sentences he would say in certain moments and learn to speak that way. So we were at our tax agent – a real fancy guy with a real nice suit and a big fancy office. It was our first appointment to get my business running as a professional triathlete, so I was trying to speak my best German and impress him. I was explaining to him about taxes in the Netherlands – how much you have to pay and how it’s very annoying. There’s a Dutch expression for when you get irritated and something is annoying, and it’s similar to a German expression. But in German it means, “That’s totally going on my balls!” So I’m sitting there telling this really professional guy all about the annoying Dutch tax system and how paying taxes in the Netherlands is “totally going on my balls!” He got red all over! My boyfriend started laughing and it was just so embarrassing and so stupid. Luckily for me he started to laugh as well!
TM: When you’re not traveling these days, you split your time between your home base in Austria and Siri’s training camp in Santa Monica – which must also be a bit of a culture shock. How have you adapted to life in L.A.?
YVV: I love it here! When I came to Santa Monica I was very afraid because I had been living in a town with 3,000 people my whole life. It’s very big here! But I’m doing great. I have a big van – three times as big as my Fiat 500 at home – and I just sing in my van and cruise along. I’m a California girl now! And of course I love my home in Austria. I feel very grateful to live in the most beautiful spots in the world. I love the outdoors and natural beauty. I am so lucky to have these places as home!
TM: Your positivity really is contagious! What are some of the things outside of training and racing that make you smile?
YVV: I could write a book about what makes me smile! My guinea pigs, my friends back home, food, reading a good book, being in nature, a message from a sponsor. Thinking of how blessed I am that I’m very happy with how I am as a person. Every single day there are a hundred moments that I smile because I’m thankful just for little things. Who wouldn’t smile when you walk down to the ocean in Santa Monica? I can go on – how long do you have?