Esther Vergeer on Creating Unity in Sport
From world no.1 to playing an active role in supporting the Paralympic Games, find out how Esther Vergeer sees the future of sport for all.
Do you ever sit down and reminisce about your childhood?
Playing sports, dancing, skipping, jumping, laughing with the wind blowing through your hair?
What would happen if that was taken away from you?
Well, this is exactly what happened to Esther Vergeer at the age of just eight years old.
After previous complications as a child, Esther was scheduled for surgery on her spinal cord, but when she woke up she was unable to move her legs. After one final operation to try to fix the problem, Esther was left paralyzed.
Stripped of the freedom a child possesses, Esther had two choices: to live with the pain, or to let the pain drive her to success.
Esther chose the latter.
Not only did this dream become reality, it has ultimately led her to inspire others to the same, great heights.
An unwavering support for athletes
Esther is keen to support athletes, not only during their physical journey, but also their emotional one.
After retiring from professional wheelchair tennis in 2013, Esther shifted her focus from her own personal development to the development of others, providing them with the facilities and support they need to succeed.
“I get to know them within their sport, and if there’s enough time, I ask about their background, their story, their family, and their life. I think that if you have a personal connection with the athletes, then you can better support them during their Paralympic Games journey. That’s what my main job is right now. I support athletes.”
Esther often reflects on what she has learned from her own career so that she can pass this on to future athletes. This includes the level of preparation she committed to in competition, stemming from the very last time she lost a match. And while her advice may seem obvious to some, her extreme focus led to a 10-year or 470-match winning streak, so it’s definitely something we can all learn from.
“All I did was outline everything I needed to do on paper. For instance, what do I need to do six months before a big tournament? What do I need to do six weeks before a big tournament? What is my daily routine? What equipment do I need? What food do I need to be eating? What is the climate I need to be training in? How long in advance do I need to travel?
“I just wrote down all of those things and then, all of a sudden, I had a year plan and knew exactly what I needed to do. I perfected those steps and that’s how I never lost again ever until I retired.”
Besides offering insights and advice from her own experiences, Esther also works hard to ensure that athletes have the right equipment to succeed.
“I’m currently leading and helping athletes that are going to the next Paralympic Games. I’m responsible for all the facilities that we have for the upcoming Paralympic Games and work with the Olympic Committee to see how we can further develop Paralympic sports as a whole.
“Whenever they feel they need new innovations on their sporting chairs or prosthetics, I will try to help them find ways to get this done. I ask them what they need and what type of equipment would best enable them to succeed during the Paralympic Games. I also never fail to provide the two most important things for Dutch athletes: coffee and internet. Every room will always have good coffee and good internet.”
Good coffee and good internet are definitely a must in my book as well.
Esther Vergeer on her role in the Paralympic Games
While supporting athletes on an individual level, Esther is also heavily involved in the Chef de Mission for the Paralympic Games.
As a Chef de Mission, Esther strives to ensure athletes feel supported and well-equipped for the competition. She also wants to establish a larger audience for the Paralympics and celebrate the big wins each athlete has achieved by making it this far.
“My ideal vision for Paris 2024 is to have a place where athletes, parents, family, fans, and hopefully sponsors and companies, can celebrate the Paralympic Games every evening. There will be attention on the performance of the Paralympic athletes. There will be artists, music, dancing, and media. I think the performances of Paralympic athletes need to be seen and need to be valued. This cannot happen if it can’t be seen. I think this is a great opportunity to show the world our athletes and their performances.
“We need to make sure that within the two years we have until the Paris 2024 Olympics that we build excitement around the Paralympic athletes as well. I want people to not only get excited to buy tickets for the Olympics, but also for the Paralympics. I want the audience to look forward to seeing our athletes; to come to Paris for a day or two to watch the Paralympic sports. That’s what I dream of.”
Imagining the future of sport
Esther continues to express her hopes for the future of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“Right now, I see two big events that are strongly separated. You have the Olympics, which is organized by the International Olympic Committee, and you have the Paralympics, which is organized by the International Paralympic Committee. Two different organizations, two different setups, two different legal organizations. They work together sometimes, but not very often.
“There are two and a half weeks in between the end of the Olympics and the start of the Paralympics. Everybody is so focused on the end of the Olympic period and celebrating sport, that once the Paralympics roll around two and a half weeks later, nobody’s really into sports anymore. I see this is like a deviation or a divide.
“I see this in tennis, and it works really well. During Grand Slams, wheelchair tennis is fully integrated. We all played on the same courts at the same venues. People who buy Grand Slam tickets are very organically introduced to wheelchair tennis.
“I would like to see this happen with the Olympics and Paralympics as well. Why not have one event. I think it’s more sustainable, easier to organize, and is probably cheaper as well. Maybe something like this could happen one day.”
One day is sure to come. Esther’s philosophy truly hones in on inclusion and representation. Why would we split extremely talented athletes during the largest international sporting event in the world? Talented athletes should be seen as equal. We are equal.
To let pain be the driver of success takes a great deal of courage. Esther embodies courage.
To speak openly about her vision of change shows just how passionate Esther is about creating greater visibility for Paralympic sports.
The future of sport can only go forward if the world embraces such courageous and brave individuals who are hungry and passionate for change. Individuals like Esther Vergeer.