Anouk Vetter in London (© Getty Images)
Anouk Vetter’s rising success has proved a family affair.
In late 2012 after several seasons of injury frustration the vivacious Amsterdam-born multi-eventer decided to revive her coach-athlete relationship with father, Ronald.
It proved the perfect elixir for success. After several seasons of steady improvement, in 2016 she was crowned European heptathlon champion while in London this past August she served notice of her rising ability by posting a Dutch record to win IAAF World Championship heptathlon bronze - aided by a stunning championship best mark in the javelin of 58.41m.
“That coaching change was a really good step,” she says reflecting on a key staging post in her career development. “My father knows me best. He told me, ‘I don’t want you to be good as a junior, I want you to be good as a senior. Take your time’.”
Three years on his wise words have proved prescient with his daughter now among an elite crop of the world’s best multi-eventers.
‘I grew up on the track’
With her father, a long-standing athletics coach and her mother, Gerda Vetter (neé Blokziel) a two-time Dutch javelin champion, Anouk was exposed to athletics “from the pram.”
“I grew up on the track, running around from the age of four and five playing on the high jump mat,” she recalls.
She took up the sport aged six but grew bored and quit to focus on ballet and gymnastics only to return to the sport as a nine-year-old.
Training at the time with the whole family including older sister, Eline, she developed in particular a talent for javelin, although she insists, “I was not great, I was not on the top.”
What Vetter did have daily exposure to through her father and his training group was heptathlon excellence. Between the ages of 12 and 16 she carefully observed the likes of 2006 World Indoor pentathlon silver medallist Karin Ruckstuhl and 2014 World Indoor pentathlon champion Nadine Broersen and vowed one day to follow in their footsteps.
“I just knew I wanted to do the heptathlon,” she adds. “That was never in doubt.”
Besides the strong Dutch collection of multi-eventers coached by her dad, she also had an additional inspiration growing up – Swedish multi-events star, Carolina Kluft.
“Carolina was always a big motivation for me,” she admits. “I had posters on my wall from her and when Karin gave me a shirt with Carolina’s autograph. It was so exciting.”
Struggles with injury
She showed promise as an age-group athlete but failed to finish a heptathlon at either the 2011 European U20 Championships, 2012 World U20 Championships and 2013 European U23 Championships. Injury proved a curse at the two continental championships and a fall in the hurdles derailing her ambitions in Barcelona 2012.
“It was really hard for me,” she says of this period of her career. “I was often injured but I always believed I was the girl with big talent. I just had to keep going.”
The next step was to replace former coach, Bert Bennema, with her father and since then, she says, “it has gone better and better.”
Her father immediately stripped her training back to 80 per cent that of the other women in the group to protect Vetter’s fragile body. The lack of training frustrated the Dutch athlete but looking back it was unquestionably the right move.
“My father was patient and year on year he has slowly increased the training,” she explains.
Breakout in 2014
Justification for the coaching switch came in their first ever heptathlon together in 2014 when she shattered her previous PB by a massive 444 points to record 6316 points at Gotzis to place ninth. Later that year she finished seventh at the European Championships in Zurich with 6281 points.
“It was a very big year for me, I’d made a huge improvement and finished my first major championship,” she recalls.
The following year she improved further accumulating 6458 points for a new lifetime best at Gotzis and went on to triumph in Ratingen (6387 points) before the injury curse struck again when she twisted her ankle the eve of the IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
“It felt so bad I was afraid I couldn’t start,” she says. “The night (before competition) there was a lot of injections, painkillers and tears.”
Yet the Dutchwomen bravely took to the start line inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium and despite being badly compromised by the tender ankle battled through all seven events to place 12th with 6267 points.
“Bearing in mind I didn’t think I could even start the competition, mentally it was a really big step for me,” she adds.
‘Crazy’ 2016 brings European crown
She describes 2016 as a ‘crazy year” claiming a unforgettable gold medal at the European Championships in Amsterdam with a national record 6626, only to struggle to replicate that success at the following month’s Rio Olympic Games when placing tenth with 6394.
“To win that European title was amazing,” she says. “Suddenly I was out of the shadow of the big girls. But what the Olympics taught me is that my best heptathlon of the year was my second and not third competition (in 2016 she has also competed in Gotzis).”
With this in mind Vetter and her father prepared specifically to peak for the London World Championships as her second heptathlon of the year. Placing seventh in Gotzis in May in an “insanely” high level competition with 6497 points might not have placed as an obvious medal candidate in London, yet she was quietly confident of reaching a peak in the British capital.
“I knew I was not in super shape (in Gotzis) and I knew a medal would be hard, but I was hoping for a top five.”
“Angry” to place fifth overall after a disappointing shot (15.09m) and 200m (24.36) at the end of day one, Vetter knew the key to landing a podium spot was a top-quality display in the long jump with her number one discipline – the javelin – to follow.
A season’s best 6.32m – just 2cm shy of her lifetime best – provided the answers she was seeking in the long jump and a massive new javelin PB of 58.41m – by 2.65m - catapulted her from fifth into provisional bronze.
“It felt like a good one, maybe 56 metres, but then I heard the crowd going wild and the stadium announcer saying I had thrown almost 60 metres,” she says. “I thought, ‘was it that far?’ I was like a happy child.”
Fixated on tracking the feel of champion-elect Nafi Thiam – for at least the first 450 metres of the 800m – she completed the two-lap finale in 2:19.43 to secure bronze in a Dutch record 6636 points. As a measure of the quality of the competition the highest mark in World Championship history to bank bronze.
“After I saw my name on the scoreboard I was in a big shock,” she explains. “Then Carolin Schafer, the silver medallist, grabbed my hand said, ‘we did it’.”
“I thought winning the European title was big but this was even bigger (winning World bronze). It is massive. I feel now like a much more respected athlete.”
Since winning world bronze the Arnhem-based athlete plans to start a law degree in September and has raised the bar to wanting to score 6700 or 6800 points in the future and win more medals.
Yet why does the dynamic work between father and daughter?
“It works, although sometimes it is hard,” she admits. “Especially when my training doesn’t work out in the way I want. But we do work really well together. In future, I just hope to enjoy every championship because it is such a special life I live.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF