The athlete’s choice between the Olympic dream and education

“Are you here for Jaap?” a member of Brown University’s Men’s Crew team asks me as I walk into the Hunter S. Marston Boathouse in Providence. “I am,” I respond. “The Golden Boy!” he jokingly shouts back as he walks away. Apparently, Jaap de Jong has made quite a name for himself here already. And that’s saying something, as Brown has produced countless Olympians over the years.


 

“They just like to mess with me like that,” says de Jong as he rests his giant frame on the couch for the interview, referencing the earlier encounter. “I want to captain this Crew team in the future, but I’m not there yet – I’m still just a sophomore.”

Growing up in Amsterdam, de Jong never picked up rowing until he was 15 years old. Three years later, he won the 2015 World Rowing Junior Championships in Rio de Janeiro. That’s quite the development.

2015 jaap
De Jong (third from the left) wins the gold in the 2015 World Rowing Junior Championships in Rio de Janeiro. Picture per FISA Igor Meijer.

“When I first started doing it [rowing], I didn’t have much else going on in my life. I always like to commit to things, so when I decided I was going to continue rowing, I went for it 100%.”

That meant training eight times a week. That meant getting up before the sun rises and training before his high school classes at the Vossius Gymnasium in Amsterdam started. It took over his life, but he liked it that way. It turned out he had a knack for it, too. He started winning local races, then national races, then international races. He got scouted by the KNRB, the Royal Dutch Rowing Federation. It went incredibly fast, and de Jong was loving every bit of it.

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De Jong on his campus at Brown University

His high school didn’t like it, however. The Vossius Gymnasium is one of the best high schools in the Netherlands, a school that prides itself in the level and the grades of its pupils. So, having one of them missing entire days to compete in rowing championships and skipping PE classes because his coach doesn’t want him to get injured didn’t sit well with the headmaster.

“It was annoying because usually, high schools help their student-athletes with their time tables and they are a bit more lenient with the grades, but it was quite the opposite for me,” de Jong remembers.

“I was being recruited by Harvard, Brown and Yale for a rowing scholarship, but these kinds of schools expect a certain level of grades as well as performance on the water. It was almost like the Vossius didn’t want me to get recruited, I really struggled to get good enough grades while also having my training regime. I had no social life at that point.”

De Jong, still only 21 years of age, was forced to repeat a year in high school to get his grades up. When he did, Harvard and Brown made him their number one recruit for their entire university. “That was cool, having two Ivy League schools like that offering you scholarships.”

“I was being recruited by Harvard, Brown and Yale for a rowing scholarship”

The Dutch youth international eventually chose for Brown over Harvard, as he thought he’d have a better chance to reach his goal – becoming an Olympian.

“That’s always been the goal, man. Going to Tokyo next year and representing my country there, and maybe even winning a medal… imagine that!”

That dream could very much become a reality. However, he would need to make a massive sacrifice; he’d have to move back to the Netherlands in the summer of 2019 and train with the KNRB for an entire year to have a chance of making it to the 2020 Olympics. Leave his Architecture study, his rowing friends and his new-found home all behind for at least a year.

“The KNRB rates every Dutch talent on a bunch of factors,” de Jong explains. “They give you a number from one to five in a bunch of categories, one being the best and five being the worst; [the categories are] strength, technique, potential, but also things like commitment. Because I study abroad, I’m currently a five on commitment, and with a five I will never get in the Olympic team. I would have to move back home and train my ass off for an entire year, and even then, there’s absolutely no guarantee I’ll make it in.”

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De Jong (left) still represents his native country of the Netherlands when practising at Brown.

Watching him in person at Brown, training but also socialising at the dining halls, you can tell de Jong is very happy at Brown. He goes to watch the university’s other sports teams, he wears ‘Brown’ clothes everywhere he goes, and he always seems to be in a good mood. Is it worth throwing all of that away for a chance to be an Olympian?

“I would have to learn the Dutch national anthem if I do go to Tokyo, that’s for sure,” de Jong says with a wink.

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