Kaj Hendriks was in the middle of an erg training session one morning in March when he thought to himself, what am I doing? He finished the training, put down the handle and called the hospital where he used to work.
Hendriks is a member of the Dutch national team. He competed at the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he won bronze in the men’s eight. He was well on his way to another Olympic Games, attempting to qualify the men’s pair, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Of course, as a medical doctor you follow those things with great interest, but I didn’t see it coming. That it would be an epidemic of this size. I’ve got quite a few friends who are involved in the hospitals in the south of the Netherlands, where after carnival it hit the community pretty hard, so I knew early on about the expected pressure on the hospitals,” Hendriks says.
For the last few years he has been combining internships for medical school with training. In preparation for the Tokyo Olympic Games, Hendriks devoted this last winter entirely to rowing.
“It went quite well. I was strong and fit, so that is the most important,” he says.
But with the cancellation of the Olympic qualification regatta, Hendriks already sensed trouble in the making.
“It was during an erg session on a Tuesday, a two-hour steady-state, boring erg session in a more or less quarantined setting in the garage where I thought, ‘I am strong, I am healthy, I am fit and I am a doctor, why am I training for an uncertain race, when I could be available or at least stand-by and offer my services in the hospital?’” Hendriks says.
He finished the training session, got off the erg and called the hospital where he used to work in the emergency room.
Next, he gathered the team together and explained his decision, especially to his partner in the pair, Jakob van de Kerkhof.
“Jakob was quite understanding, he found it a respectful and noble decision,” Hendriks says.
The peak of the outbreak in the Netherlands was shorter than expected. Hendriks worked for about two weeks in a supportive role, helping in the emergency room in the non-Covid hospital. But the whole experience has stayed with him.
“For me it’s a time to put things in perspective. Sometimes it’s necessary to take time to make decisions and for me it was this decision. Because rowing at the Olympic Games in a final is one of the most memorable moments of my life, but it doesn’t top everything else.”
Hendriks is positive overall about the reaction to the pandemic.
“What I also realised is that we’ve all been living with the idea that health is a common good. But now we’ve all been reminded that as a species are still vulnerable. I think it is positive that everybody can play a part in the preservation of the common good. For some it will be more active, and for some passive, just to stay at home.”
The Dutch national team recently started training again on the water and for Hendriks, it makes all the difference.
“I didn’t think I would be this happy to just sit in a rowing boat again. I think maybe that’s another positive thing about human being, that we easily change our baseline, what is normal and what isn’t. So you become very happy with the small things,” he says.