Playing to the Pressure
July 07, 2016
Dafne Schippers’ life changed in 21.63 seconds.
Beijing, August 28, 2015: Schippers edged out her closest competitor by .03 seconds to claim the 200-meter world championships and become history’s third fastest woman over the distance. The race was a stamp of intent; the success coming roughly two months after the Dutch athlete announced a focus on sprinting and only four days after she claimed second in the 100-meter final (running .05 seconds off the title).
Flash back two years earlier to the 2013 World Championships in Moscow: Schippers is on podium, but as a heptathlete. Her bronze was the first Dutch medal won by a woman in the history of the contest.
Born June 15, 1992 in Utrecht, Netherlands, Schippers’ athletics career began at age nine. Her early achievements as an all-rounder were capped with a world junior heptathlon title in 2010 and a European title in 2011. During the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, Schippers broke the Dutch national record in the 200 meters, but failed to make the event’s final by .05 seconds, planting a seed of event specialization in the then-19-year-old’s mind. In 2014, she improved on her 200-meter record, storming into the European Championships and taking gold in both the 100 and 200 meters. Along with claiming victory, Schippers also confirmed her career track: She was now a sprinter.
Schippers made her decision public in June of 2015 and asserted its validity with that 21.63-second dash in Beijing. During an interview at the 2016 Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, the athlete doubled down on her choice, chuckling when asked if she’d consider returning to the heptathlon. Extoling the excitement surrounding the sprint milieu, she stated: “It's a new world and it’s very cool.” But she has also conceded its pressure. Once triumph is attained, holding onto the glory, by holding off the competition, increases the burden of conquest.
“Then I really have to show it, because now I’m the world champion.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to have to run against these kinds of people,’” Schippers says of having to regularly go head to head with the world’s elite. “Then I really have to show it, because I really have to now… now I’m the world champion.”
Previously a glutton for training — Schippers once went through two circuits of two to two and a half hours daily — she’s now focused on reducing wear and tear on the body, while refining her craft. Conversely, now that she is a world champion, Schippers actually has to learn how to sprint.
To do so, she’s engaging in the sections of her races: “We divide it into four stages,” she explains of the 100. “Zero to 30 [meters] is the start; 30 to 60 remain low, upright, and then comes a kind of speed if I’m right. And from there, running neatly to the finish — finish is also a stage.”
Given her height, 5 feet 10 inches, Schippers has struggled with starts. This is particularly evident in the 100, where (naturally) she’s not got as much time to catch up to the field if she falters off the blocks and lags behind. To improve, Schippers studies the techniques of her, much shorter, competition.
Similarly, she’s also refined her approach to the 200. “If you take the bend too fast, you can feel it, because you can’t keep it up to the finish. Then you accelerate slightly less from the bend to the end. So you try to be smarter with your energy,” Schippers explains. These elements may seem small — the milliseconds of a 100 start or a 200 curve — but they are essential steps to keeping pace with and maintaining a mental edge over the competition.
Schippers’ charge this summer is to prove she can perform under pressure. Along the way, she’ll also prove that 21.63, and the gold that came with it, was no fluke. And above all, she’ll prove that despite her start as an all-rounder, she is a “born sprinter.”