Rio de Janeiro – Epke Zonderland will face a tough job in Rio to defend his Olympic title on high bar. The way towards the Olympics wasn’t without struggle. He is not the only high bar specialist without a perfect preparation though. Fabian Hambuechen is known as Epke’s friend and rival for years now and his ‘Road to Rio’ also didn’t go according to plan.
Hambuechen competed in the Olympics for the first time in Athens, 2004. He was the youngest competitor there. Despite his age, he qualified for the high bar final and ended up in seventh place. In 2005, 2007 and 2008 he became European Champion on this event and in 2007 he also took the world title. Beijing in 2008 was his second chance to get an Olympic medal on his favorite event. He eventually gets the bronze medal. Zonderland also qualified fort he finals in his first Olympics in Beijing, but with difficulty with his grips he couldn’t manage to catch a flight element and get’s launched into the mats. The following years Hambuechen and Zonderland competed against each other multiple times and during the European Championships in Berlin in 2011, Zonderland took his first big win. He became European Champion.
During the Olympic Games in London in 2012, the two friends met again for what turned out to be a fierce competition. The Flying Dutchman took the gold with a 16.533, with a small margin over Hambuechen. Zonderland is the first gymnast, combining these three flight elements. The Cassina, Kovacs, Kolman combination let’s the jaws drop in the O2 arena. This combination made the difference and helped Zonderland win the gold medal. “During the Olympic Games in Londen everything was different”, Zonderland explains. “I always had some minor injuries, but from the test event all the way to the Olympics, I was so fit. I had the perfect preparation. Competed my routine in several World Cups and had lot’s of confidence.” Zonderlands Olympic high bar routine is one t oremember. Hambuechen also competed flawless and the difference was made in the difficulty. Hambuechen won the silver medal and so the two friends stood next to each other on the Olympic podium. After winning bronze and silver, Hambuechen is still motivated towards Rio. “I love gymnastics and that's motivating me every day,” Hambuechen explains eager. “I don't think about gold because the chance to make it, is not the best one this time.”
Career after London
After the Olympic title on high bar, Epke Zonderlands gymnastics career was still on the way up. In 2013 he won the World title on his favorite event in Belgium and Hambuechen won the silver there. During Worlds in Nanning in 2014, soon to be doctor Zonderland, keeps his title and wins his second consecutive World title. After that it didn’t seem easy to maintain this high level. Injuries and sickness messed things up. During the European Championships in Montpellier in 2015, Zonderland didn’t qualify for the finals, because he took a fall in the prelims. He only scored 13,733 on his birthday that day. Hambuechen choose to compete in Baku during the European Games that year, where he took the gold.
Zonderland suffers a concussion in training towards the 2015 World Championships. He hits his head on the high bar and his participation suddenly wasn’t sure anymore. Just in time he resumes training and manages to earn a spot on the Dutch Worlds team. His concussion definitely didn’t help him in Glasgow. “I just felt like I lack endurence on every apparatus. On the parallel bars I could fix it, but this is all I can do right now. I think I only did five full routines towards these World Championships. I just feel like five weeks is not enough to be prepared." Recovering from the concussion, the next issue appears.
The Dutch mens team places in the top sixteen (11th) during the 2015 World Championships, which qualifies them into the Olympic Test event as a team. Originally, the teams goal was to qualify for the Olympics through the front door, but they needed a top eight for that. Again the preparation for the Flying Dutchman wasn’t how it needed to be. “I just constantly had a cold and suffered inexplicable loss of shape. I just wasn’t fit.” Zonderland told a Dutch newspaper. “My most important concern, is to be completely fit during the Test Event in Rio and after New Years eve I want to resume training completely. That’ll give me three months to be completely fit again, it should be enough,” Zonderland said last year. Surprisingly Zonderland manages to qualify for the team that travels to Rio for the Olympic Test Event, after some minor surgeries. “When I competed, it all clicked, but that was coincidence.” The team competes well during this Test Event and qualifies a full team tot he Rio Olympic Games. Zonderland gets the gold in the high bar final, followed by German gymnast Brettschneider and USA’s Orozco, who recently tore his ACL. “Since my concussion and the sinus infections I haven’t felt as fit as during the Test Event,” says Zonderland. “I thought I got over it, but unfortunately it came back and again I could not train 100 percent.”
Rocky road to Rio
“I got some more headache again, so I was negative about my road to Rio. In the end everything was fine and I just try to build some consistency.” Zonderland is fit, but compets a watered down routine during Dutch Nationals in June. He took a fall during the second qualification but despite these bumps in the road, the current Olympic Champion still got selected to represent the Netherlands in Rio. “I feel that I don’t necessarily need the perfect preparation, as long as I just get the right feeling back and therefore the confidence.” Fabian Hambuechen also struggled during his road to Rio. “I couldn't really work out for about three months due a shoulder injury,” tells the German gymnast. “My shoulder got worse from year to year, because of this long time high impact during gymnastics. Around eight weeks ago I started training again and was working hard to get ready for Rio. It was a hard way but now I'm not in too bad of a shape.” He is still positive despite the less pleasant preparation. “Of course it feels kind of better when you had a good preparation, but there's never a guarantee that it works out for you. So at least your feeling is what counts and nothing else. I think we both have a lot of experience and it's not too important to have a perfect preparation. We just need to feel ready and everyone will give its best!” These Olympics, Hambuechen won’t compete in the all around. When he is asked if this will be his last international tournament, he is very clear: “It is true.”
During one of his last workouts in the Netherlands, Epke Zonderland says he is ready for Rio. “It feels ok again. I make more and more of combinations again and I am also able to catch them. When everything feels even better, I will try different combinations, so that I can decide during the competition weather to combine 2 elements twice or combine three and do one solo flight element. And who knows, says Epke, joking around. “Maybe I’ll combine all four. It’s just nice to have some routines to choose from.” Of course Zonderland and Hambuechen aren’t the only medal contenders. Bart Deurloo competed a new personal high score of 15.250, during Dutch Nationals last june. Shortly after, head coach Mitch Fenner passed away. A sad moment in Dutch gymnastics history, because this man is the main reason the Dutch men qualified a real team, ready to ‘Rock in Rio’. The Dutch gymnast desperately want to make Fenners dream come true. Place top eight with the team in Rio and medal in an event final. “I think beside Epke and me, there are a lot of other gymnasts who can make, and win, the high bar final,” Hambuechen says. “Uchimura, Tanaka, Brettschneider, Leyva, Brooks, Larduet and so on… It will be really exciting!” Weather people expect a lot from Zonderland or not, because of his health issues lately, is difficult to say. “It is quite nice to go in as the underdog actually. On the other hand, I face pressure and expectations for a long time now, so I think this time I will also be able to handle that. It all depends on conficence. You can face anything, when you have confidence.” Hambuechen does not see his friend as the underdog. “If you are in a final, anything is possible. But still Epke will be the man to beat!”
After today's podium training Epke Zonderland announced he won't compete on parallel bars and pommel horse during qualification due to an injury on his fingers. He will only perform on high bar. The apparatus where the Dutch will start off their qualification and where Zonderland will try to qualify for the finals in order to defend his Olympic title on this event.
Deze post is ook beschikbaar in: Dutch