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Alumni About alumni In the footsteps of Aletta Jacobs

‘If you have a bad feeling about something, don’t ignore it.’

Ymkje Clevering, top athlete, Olympic Medal winner and European champion rowing
Photo by Lisa Goossens
Photo by Lisa Goossens

Text: Ellis Ellenbroek, translation UVC

Ymkje Clevering (1995) demonstrated her superior ability while a member of Gyas, the Groningen student rowing club. That led to a place in the national team. Ymkje won silver in the women’s coxless fours at the last Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2021. With a Bachelor of Medicine under her belt, she now lives in Amsterdam, the place to be for rowers. She no longer feels the need to become a doctor. Instead, her sights are set on gold at the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.

Paris is still a long way off. How do you spend your days at present?
‘I’m doing a Master’s degree in Health Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. I’d like to finish it this year. And, of course, I do lots of training. In January, we were at a training camp in Portugal. There’s a new head coach who works with both men and women– a different approach, different training schedules, a new group. It takes some getting used to.
Everyone’s training for themselves at present. That means that I spend a lot of time in a single scull, with two oars. It’s fun, but I still have to get used to it since I don’t actually have much experience with two oars. As a student, you start rowing in the eights, which is with one oar. The two-oar period comes after that. But I skipped that because I broke through to the highest level in a pretty short time, as a stroke side rower – in other words, with one oar. I'm trying to make up for that now.’

Why? Haven't you already proved yourself as a stroke side rower in the women’s coxless fours?
‘Yes, and I’d like to get back to that. But everything is up for grabs. Everyone is being given new opportunities. There’ll be new selections. Every year, they check to see whether people are still in the right boats. I don’t want them to rule me from the sculls in advance.’

So much uncertainty still – I think that would be stressful. Are you good at dealing with stress?
‘Yes, I am.’

What tricks do you have?
‘I don’t need many tricks, it all happens naturally. I’m not on the Headspace app. I can handle things myself and I’m not easily upset. I think that’s because of my northern roots.’

Why did you start rowing as a student in Groningen? And what made you stand out?
‘I signed up with Gyas with a friend from my secondary school in Friesland. I wanted to join something, but not a club where it was all about drinking.
I do have an aptitude for sports. I’m good at football and I swam and did gymnastics until I was twelve. Rowing suits me because I’m strong and tall, with a strong pair of legs. Many people think that rowing is all about your arms. But it’s much more of a leg sport. You slide forward on a moving seat, push your bum back, and then you slide forward again.
If you’ve done gymnastics as a young girl, you can usually control your limbs pretty well. What also helps is that I work hard, and I have stamina.’

Did you take advantage of the University’s elite sport scheme?
‘The UG scheme gives you priority when it comes to things like choosing a tutorial group. I did take advantage of that. And the tuition fees for 2015-2016, the final year of my Bachelor’s, were reimbursed. That was a tough year. I was busy qualifying for the Under-23 World Championships in Rotterdam.’

Why did you move to Amsterdam in 2017?
‘The centre for rowing is Amsterdam, with its famous Bosbaan. I remember how we prepared for the Under-23 World Championships – a girl from Groningen, two from Amsterdam, and me. We trained for two weeks in Groningen and six weeks in Amsterdam. It’s difficult getting people from Amsterdam to come to Groningen. Managing to do that for two weeks was already an exception.’

What do you live on?
‘I was granted A status in June 2017. As an A-status athlete, I receive a monthly stipend from the government. I also sell sunglasses cords, but that’s more for fun. I do lots of other things too, with my best friend and flatmate Roos de Jong, who’s also a rower. We thread the sunglasses cords ourselves and sell them on a website. We also plan to make hair elastics from silk remnants.’

But isn’t all that finnicky stuff an odd occupation for a strong, tough sportswoman like yourself?
Almost offended: ‘What!’ She stands up and pulls out a crocheted anteater. And a carp, which she embroidered in Tokyo. ‘I’m fairly restless. After training, I have to relax. I can watch TV series, for example, but I can’t sit still. I have to do something with my hands.
A sedentary hobby is the least stressful. The fact that we have refurbished a camper van was pushing things a bit because it took so much energy. But we’re very impressed with what we’ve achieved. We did everything ourselves! A wooden interior, electricity, a kitchenette, a solar panel on the roof. I like learning new things and now I know how to do tiling, grouting, and insulation! For my birthday last year, I got a jigsaw and a cordless drill.’

Do you have your Olympic silver medal from Tokyo close to hand?
Laughing: ‘Coincidentally, I do. The other day, the mother of one of my flatmates called in and she also asked about it, so I fished it out. I don't always have it close to hand. For the first six weeks, it was in the glove compartment of my car.’

The fact that the 2020 Summer Olympics were postponed for a year due to COVID-19 worked out well for you. Tell me why.
‘I had a bike accident on 27 December 2019. I have to exercise at Christmas time too. We have to do a certain number of minutes a day. I went cycling in Friesland with my brother and brother-in-law. They suggested mountain biking. I hesitated – mountain biking is quite dangerous, you go over tree stumps and hills. But I thought: surely just this once, don’t make things so difficult. Now I think: if you have a bad feeling about something, don’t ignore it.
‘My brother and I did an extra circuit – my minutes weren’t up yet and we could still manage it before dark. Then, in Appelscha, I fell.
I got up again and I could feel everything in my left shoulder moving separately. My right elbow became stiff. It was bad. I’d broken my left collarbone and my right elbow. Two arms broken on the eve of the Olympic year. I screamed a lot in that forest.
I had surgery on my collarbone. After five weeks, I did a little secret rowing indoors. After nine weeks, I was allowed to go full steam again. I had to learn the movements all over again.
COVID-19 made things easier for me. Otherwise, it would have been very tight and difficult. I don’t know whether I would have qualified.’

What are your plans for after your career as an elite athlete? You have a Bachelor of Medicine. Do you want to become a doctor?
‘No. My Master’s in Health Sciences is more focused on public health than on individual patients. The Master’s track is called Infectious Diseases and Public Health – I’m currently researching snake bites. I’m no longer interested in becoming a doctor. I went to university with the idea of becoming an orthopaedist, but I found that my studies weren’t all-absorbing, as they are for some people. I immersed myself in rowing.
I don’t want to have to move to take up a trainee position, and I spend so much time outdoors now that I couldn’t bear having to be inside a hospital for fifty, sixty hours a week. For rowing, however, I’m prepared to make sacrifices.
With my unique experience as a top athlete, I think I could set up my own company. I don’t know what yet. I’d like it if I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do at the start of the day – it shouldn’t be predictable work. I’m going to try to find something wild! But for the next two and a half years at least, rowing is what I want to be doing with my life.’

Ymkje Clevering

Ymkje Clevering (Haulerwijk, 1995) began rowing in 2014 while a second-year medical student at the University of Groningen. She joined the Gyas rowing club and proved to be exceptional. In 2017, she joined the national team and immediately won silver in the women’s eights at the European Championships in the Czech Republic. Her coxless four team were European champions three times in a row (2019, 2020, 2021) and came second at the 2019 World Championships. The four rowed to a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Ymkje obtained her Bachelor of Medicine at the University of Groningen in 2016 and is now studying for a Master’s at the VU in Amsterdam. She shares a house in the capital with seven other top athletes.

Click here for Ymkje’s sunglasses cords.

Last modified:24 March 2022 4.17 p.m.
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