Orienteer Eef van Dongen (NED) has a very unusual story about how she qualified for The World Games 2022. Van Dongen comes from a country that only has 450 registered orienteers altogether, and she had never even tried the sport before 2018! Yet in 2021 she finished 16th in the World Orienteering Championships, earning her ticket to The World Games 2022 in Birmingham, Alabama. She is this week’s athlete Building up to Birmingham!
“I didn't know about Orienteering until I met my Swedish partner Simon Jakobsson in 2017,” Eef van Dongen says. “I hesitated a bit because I thought it would be too late for me to learn such a challenging sport, but then I took a beginner's Orienteering course in Zurich (SUI) in spring 2018, and I did a few training courses and competitions that year. In 2019 I joined my first Orienteering club, but I didn't do many competitions until I decided in autumn 2019 to start focusing on Sprint Orienteering, aiming to qualify for the World Orienteering Championships (WOC) in 2020. Orienteering is a small sport in the Netherlands, so I knew I had a chance even though I had limited time to prepare. With a lot of help from Simon, who in the meantime has also become my trainer and coach, I improved my orienteering skills enough to qualify for WOC 2020, which unfortunately had to be postponed to 2022. My first international competitions were European and World Orienteering Championships in 2021. Because many local races had been cancelled, I had run less than 10 Sprint races, and only one Long Distance race before participating at the World Championships. Therefore I surprised both myself and many in the audience in finishing 3rd in my Sprint qualification heat, 16th in the Sprint Final, and 35th in the Long Distance!”
While not having orienteered before, Eef van Dongen has been active in sport for her whole life. “As a child I did judo and volleyball, and often went on bike tours with my family. I started recreational running around age 16, and mainly focused on being able to finish a half marathon, not focusing much on my speed. I continued running and started ice skating as a student, but still all on a recreational level,” she says. Besides her recreational sports hobbies and now Orienteering at elite level, she combines two half-time jobs, one as a researcher at Stockholm University focusing on numerical modelling of iceberg calving glaciers, and the other at the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute working on improvement of a model for air pollution from shipping. Van Dongen says Orienteering is a great combination of mental and physical challenge, as it requires full focus throughout the whole race. She also likes the fact that Orienteering brings you to special places, where you'd never come otherwise: “Because we mainly run off-trail, using a map and compass, most people wouldn't even know how to get there!”
At The World Games the individual Orienteering disciplines are Sprint and Middle Distance, which are van Dongen’s best disciplines. “Since this year's world championships only has Sprint races, which is also where I have the best chances as I only recently started Orienteering, I focus mainly on Sprint Orienteering. This means that I do a lot of normal running training, and if I come to places with a Sprint map that I haven't trained on before, I always take the opportunity to train technique.”
“My aim is to be as well prepared as possible for the WOC and TWG, to be the best version of myself and hopefully inspire other Dutch orienteers.”
In the Netherlands she often gets the question: isn’t it possible to cheat in Orienteering with a phone? “I always explain that it won't work for several reasons: Orienteering maps are much more detailed than anything you get on your phone, and good orienteers navigate much quicker than your phone does. Even for Sprint Orienteering, which is usually done in cities, a normal map does not help because there are no street names on a Sprint map, and anyway you simply wouldn't have the time to read them.”
While Eef van Dongen now concentrates on improving her Sprint skills, she is not only training in urban areas. “I love being in the forest, and the softer ground makes forest running less injury-prone, so I do combine my training with both running and orienteering in the forest. Most trainings I do are in a similar format to competitions, but to make it more challenging, we sometimes adapt the map by taking away information, for example to focus on using the compass, or generalising the map by only using the height contours. And as I live in Sweden now, where it's quite dark in winter, we also train night orienteering with a head torch!”
Having only started Orienteering in 2018, van Dongen has never been to The World Games before. If she has time to go and watch other sports during the Games, she would like to cheer for the Dutch team in Korfball, and go and watch Sport Climbing. “The months before The World Games will be filled with other Orienteering competitions like the World Cup in May and the World Championships in June, so all preparations I do for those competitions will also help me to prepare for The World Games,” van Dongen says. If she had to compete in another The World Games sport, she would try her skills in Speed Skating: “I just found out that drone racing is a sport! I got some experience flying a drone for my fieldwork on Greenland, to map the glacier and monitor the breaking-off of icebergs. But that was more about precise movement, covering the glacier with a grid, I'm sure I wouldn't be a fast racer. If I want to compete it would be in roller sports, Speed Skating since it is closest to Ice Skating.”
Fans also got their chance to ask Eef van Dongen questions on social media.
Is it possible to orienteer in the Netherlands?
“Yes, there is a national Orienteering Federation (NOLB) and there are 5 clubs that regularly organise competitions, almost every Sunday throughout the whole year. The federation has 450 members. However, the maps usually have a more dense network of tracks and roads than maps in for example Scandinavia, and there are not very many mapped areas in the Netherlands, so to get better at Orienteering it definitely helps to train and compete abroad as well. On the other hand, the Netherlands has many towns with old city centres with irregular street networks and small alleys, so it is a very suitable country for Sprint Orienteering!”
What is your favourite food?
“Risotto with chantarelles fresh from the forest! Running through the forest is a very efficient way to spot chantarelles.”
What is your favourite orienteering terrain?
“I really love the sandstone terrain in Czech Republic! Physically challenging with steep climbs, and very challenging route choices, but the maps are more distinct with all the cliffs, which made it a bit easier for me to navigate.”
What is your favourite discipline in Orienteering?
“At the moment it is Sprint, because in the forest my orienteering technique is still limiting my capabilities more.”
What was most difficult in learning Orienteering?
“'Was' is the wrong word, because in a way, I'm still learning Orienteering! Most difficult is to do everything at the same time: running in the forest which can be stony or with high vegetation, reading the map, translating the map to what it should look like in the terrain, reading the terrain, using the compass and keeping a straight direction - all at a high speed. Also in Sprint Orienteering there are many things you need to do at the same time: preparing your route choices later on in the race, but also keeping track of exactly where you are at that moment, and where you need to go next.”
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association, organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and over 100 countries will take part in The World Games.