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“Being at the top is tough. But becoming number one, that’s a lot tougher” 

Bettine Vriesekoop

Bettine Vriesekoop

BIRKENSTORY #29 Bettine Vriesekoop – Dutch table tennis legend with a great love of China

Klack-klack, klack-klack … Everyone is familiar with the typical sound of the plastic ball that weighs 2.7 g hitting the table – only to be returned to the other side of the table within a fraction of a second at a speed of up to 170 km/h. Two-time European champion Bettine Vriesekoop has been training the young professional table tennis player Sanne de Hoop for some years now and really pushes her: “Bettine is an animal. When your concentration is not good enough, she will kill you.” These days, the two-time Dutch Sports Personality of the Year (1980, 1985) and Dutch Table Tennis Player of the Century (2000) lives in Amsterdam and works as a coach and author. Bettine grew up in the small village of Hazerswoude close to the university city of Leiden in South Holland. Her childhood was spent on a farm together with her eight brothers and sisters. She began to play table tennis at the age of ten after her father died. She was soon the best in her age group – in the whole of the Netherlands. At 16, Bettine was ranked second in the European Top-12.

Klack-klack, klack-klack … Everyone is familiar with the typical sound of the plastic ball that weighs 2.7 g hitting the table – only to be returned to the other side of the table within a fraction of a second at a speed of up to 170 km/h. Two-time European champion Bettine Vriesekoop has been training the young professional table tennis player Sanne de Hoop for some years now and really pushes her: “Bettine is an animal. When your concentration is not good enough, she will kill you.” These days, the two-time Dutch Sports Personality of the Year (1980, 1985) and Dutch Table Tennis Player of the Century (2000) lives in Amsterdam and works as a coach and author. Bettine grew up in the small village of Hazerswoude close to the university city of Leiden in South Holland. Her childhood was spent on a farm together with her eight brothers and sisters. She began to play table tennis at the age of ten after her father died. She was soon the best in her age group – in the whole of the Netherlands. At 16, Bettine was ranked second in the European Top-12.

Table Tennis Play
Training, training, training

From 1973, she was trained by the Dutch coach Gerard Bakker. His training regime was tough – Bettine often played on two tables simultaneously, frequently while wearing a sand-filled vest. She practiced for up to 40 hours a week and led a very isolated life – no friends, no partying, no fashionable clothes, no jewelry. “Nobody practiced that hard, so it was special,” reminisces Bettine. 

From 1973, she was trained by the Dutch coach Gerard Bakker. His training regime was tough – Bettine often played on two tables simultaneously, frequently while wearing a sand-filled vest. She practiced for up to 40 hours a week and led a very isolated life – no friends, no partying, no fashionable clothes, no jewelry. “Nobody practiced that hard, so it was special,” reminisces Bettine. 

The Mecca of table tennis sport

The World Championships in Birmingham were a turning point – 15-year-old Bettine got to know the Chinese team and was fascinated by her Chinese opponents’ artistic playing style, strict training discipline, and gentle, friendly manner. It became clear to her that she had to go to China. She first visited Beijing for a number of weeks aged 18 and was faced with tough conditions – cold showers, spartan provisions, and no toilet paper. It was hot, too, with temperatures of up to 40 degrees … And her training was incredibly demanding. She had a trainer dedicated specifically to her who played thousands of balls to her. There was constant leg training, too – sometimes until her feet bled.  

The World Championships in Birmingham were a turning point – 15-year-old Bettine got to know the Chinese team and was fascinated by her Chinese opponents’ artistic playing style, strict training discipline, and gentle, friendly manner. It became clear to her that she had to go to China. She first visited Beijing for a number of weeks aged 18 and was faced with tough conditions – cold showers, spartan provisions, and no toilet paper. It was hot, too, with temperatures of up to 40 degrees … And her training was incredibly demanding. She had a trainer dedicated specifically to her who played thousands of balls to her. There was constant leg training, too – sometimes until her feet bled.  

Street Café
At the top of the game internationally

From then on, Bettine made regular trips to China for years. She liked the people there and immersed herself in their culture. “I admire them because they are able to ‘eat bitterness,’ as they say in Chinese,” she explains respectfully. But she herself was afforded respect, too, because the Chinese saw she was capable of training hard and of never giving up. Bettine’s stays in China changed her game – she was now able to beat the top Chinese players, too. At the 1982 French Open, she beat numbers one, two, and three of the Chinese world ranked players and was herself ranked fifth in the world. She became European champion that same year – at just 20 years of age. 

From then on, Bettine made regular trips to China for years. She liked the people there and immersed herself in their culture. “I admire them because they are able to ‘eat bitterness,’ as they say in Chinese,” she explains respectfully. But she herself was afforded respect, too, because the Chinese saw she was capable of training hard and of never giving up. Bettine’s stays in China changed her game – she was now able to beat the top Chinese players, too. At the 1982 French Open, she beat numbers one, two, and three of the Chinese world ranked players and was herself ranked fifth in the world. She became European champion that same year – at just 20 years of age. 

Bettine Vriesekoop
Table Tennis Play
1988 Olympics in Seoul – the schism

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul were supposed to be another milestone in her career, but it didn’t work out that way. She won her match in the round of 16, only to be bawled at by her coach in front of the rolling cameras for having seemingly carelessly given away her secure 2:0 lead. “How you end your last game decides how you go into the next game,” explains Bettine. She went into the quarterfinals feeling humiliated – and lost to a young Czech girl she otherwise almost never lost against. This led to a schism and to Bettine not holding a bat in her hand for a whole year. 

The 1988 Olympics in Seoul were supposed to be another milestone in her career, but it didn’t work out that way. She won her match in the round of 16, only to be bawled at by her coach in front of the rolling cameras for having seemingly carelessly given away her secure 2:0 lead. “How you end your last game decides how you go into the next game,” explains Bettine. She went into the quarterfinals feeling humiliated – and lost to a young Czech girl she otherwise almost never lost against. This led to a schism and to Bettine not holding a bat in her hand for a whole year. 

Bettine Vriesekoop
Phoenix from the ashes – the new Bettine

Bettine created a free and self-determined life for herself. She made friends, found a new coach, and got back into training – this time, with a different mentality and with more of her own, feminine energy. And she was determined to become European champion once again – something she did indeed impressively achieve in 1992. This second European championship title was much more important to her than the first. “But it was never about revenge. It’s always about yourself,” she says conciliatorily. 

Bettine created a free and self-determined life for herself. She made friends, found a new coach, and got back into training – this time, with a different mentality and with more of her own, feminine energy. And she was determined to become European champion once again – something she did indeed impressively achieve in 1992. This second European championship title was much more important to her than the first. “But it was never about revenge. It’s always about yourself,” she says conciliatorily. 

Bettine Vriesekoop
Landscape
Bettine Vriesekoop
Bettine Vriesekoop
Bettine and Birkenstock

Bettine first wore Birkenstocks as a young player as her feet were placed under a lot of strain. “My feet have had a lot of stress. I had injuries, was given injections. Birkenstocks gave my feet the comfort they needed.” Back then, she only wore her sandals at home, but these days she is almost always out and about in Birkenstocks. “They’re simply comfortable and I like wearing them, including outdoors. Actually everywhere – just not to parties.” 

Bettine first wore Birkenstocks as a young player as her feet were placed under a lot of strain. “My feet have had a lot of stress. I had injuries, was given injections. Birkenstocks gave my feet the comfort they needed.” Back then, she only wore her sandals at home, but these days she is almost always out and about in Birkenstocks. “They’re simply comfortable and I like wearing them, including outdoors. Actually everywhere – just not to parties.” 

Birkenstock Sandals
A career after her career

China didn’t only change the way Bettine played table tennis – it had a huge influence on her in other ways, too. When her career came to an end, Bettine began to study Chinese culture and the Chinese language at Leiden University, and even went on to live and work in China for four years. Published in 1996, her first book Longing for Beijing covered her training and her time in China. To date, she has published eight books and she regularly gives readings. She also works as a table tennis coach for talented young players like national league player Sanne de Hoop (“Bettine is like a legend in the Netherlands!”) and keeps senior citizens fit with regular table tennis training. A life without table tennis would appear to be almost inconceivable for Bettine. “When I enter the hall, I immediately want to play – as if the ball were magically drawing me to it. I like the rhythm, the feeling. I simply love table tennis.” 

China didn’t only change the way Bettine played table tennis – it had a huge influence on her in other ways, too. When her career came to an end, Bettine began to study Chinese culture and the Chinese language at Leiden University, and even went on to live and work in China for four years. Published in 1996, her first book Longing for Beijing covered her training and her time in China. To date, she has published eight books and she regularly gives readings. She also works as a table tennis coach for talented young players like national league player Sanne de Hoop (“Bettine is like a legend in the Netherlands!”) and keeps senior citizens fit with regular table tennis training. A life without table tennis would appear to be almost inconceivable for Bettine. “When I enter the hall, I immediately want to play – as if the ball were magically drawing me to it. I like the rhythm, the feeling. I simply love table tennis.” 

Interior Books
Computer
Bettine Vriesekoop
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