De Witte: “We want to show we’re not a small country that can’t reach finals”

Lisanne de Witte
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Lisanne de Witte celebrates her bronze medal in the 400m at the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships

We caught up with Dutch 400m sprinters Lisanne and Laura De Witte on Friday (23) evening for the sixth episode of our #AtHomeWith series on Instagram Live which is presented by Great Britain's 2016 European long jump silver medallist Jazmin Sawyers.

The De Witte sisters talked about training in lockdown, competing against each other as well as competing alongside each other on countless Dutch relay teams, including at the 2016 European Championships in Amsterdam where they reached the final. If you missed the interview, you can watch it back in full on IGTV.   

How are you both and how has lockdown been for you? How have you been spending your time?

Lisanne: So far it’s not too bad. We’ve been allowed back on the track for about a week now so we can train together again which is really nice  because I think the first few weeks of lockdown were a bit lonely.

We can have a maximum of 10 but we still have to keep a distance of course although that’s not hard on the track. At the beginning we could only see three people on the track so we missed the whole team around you but the whole team is back.

Tell us about the chicks! We’ve seen a lot of them on social media. How are they doing at the moment and how much looking after do they need?

Lisanne: My friend who I live with, they have chicks so they are in the house sometimes and they come and visit a lot and they are so adorable - I wish they could stay! They are coming in more and I’m convincing them to keep them in the house.

Sometimes we look after them - they go out for work or for training and they leave them with me and I take care of them.

You seem to have a pretty well-equipped home gym! Was all that equipment there before lockdown or did you buy it in when the gyms and tracks closed?

Lisanne: No, I bought most of it for lockdown - I got some of it from the gyms around here. We used to train at the club for weights but we are not allowed to go there obviously. We are only allowed to train outside so I thought I need a gym. I bought some of it and I borrowed some other stuff so that’s why Laura has been coming over for weights.

Aside from the gym, how have you been training in lockdown?

Laura: Normally we go to the dunes once a week but we’re going three two or three times a week so that’s a nice place to train, also the forests - on the streets a bit too. 

Lisanne: I think our coach decided for us to do another month of the hard work so that’s why we were in the dunes. We did a lot of running on sand and strength work on the stairs.

Are you just as competitive off the track as you are on the track? Does everything away from the track still have an element of competitiveness?

Laura: Definitely not only on the track!

Lisanne: In the street I make a competition out of putting the trash bag out first, stuff like that. This week I won! Between us, it doesn’t go crazy like in races but there is always an element of competition.

How do you find racing each other? Are you able to view each other as just another rival?

Laura: It’s really hard. You know it’s her and you want to beat her but I feel you would see them as a rival once you are in a race but before and after it’s so different. Even still now, because we train together, it feels more like training sometimes than a real race.

Lisanne: It’s really difficult. In warm-up we’re sisters and up until we are in the blocks. Right after you are sisters again but if I am racing you, I am thinking about how Laura is running, especially indoors, because you can see each other...but don’t get me wrong: I want to win all the time!

After the race, right away, even if I do well or don’t do well, I look for Laura and see how she’s done...at least that’s what I do!

When did you start athletics? Did you start at the same time or did Lisanne start first as the older sister?

Laura: We started at the same age - around eleven - and we both joined the club of our mum and we’ve never left, we are still there.

Lisanne: My mum did everything - she didn’t really focus on one thing. I did softball before and the only thing I could do was run between the bases and they said ‘maybe you should do something with that?’ Then my mum said ‘I did athletics back in the day so maybe you should try it out?’ After that Laura came with us.

Laura, there is a great video of you cheering for Lisanne in the semifinals of Glasgow 2019. Is it more nerve-wracking to be out on the track racing yourself or watching your sister compete? 

Sure, to watch! Because you’re not in control, you want her to do good - you know if she is in shape or not and what she can do but when you are running yourself, you can control all your emotions and what you do. Watching is awful, actually!

But the great thing is you can also compete together! How did it feel to break the Dutch 4x400m record at the 2016 Olympics?

Lisanne: For us it was great. Running together at the Olympics is really cool anyway - you can share everything together, especially when the race goes well. At the time I didn’t realise how good it was; of course you want to reach the final but then we saw the time which was really good.

But you did reach the final at the European Championships in Amsterdam together in 2016. How was that?

Lisanne: We use that stadium for the nationals and it’s empty all the time. Before the championships we didn’t have a big vibe going on and we didn’t expect too many people to be there and let’s expect the worst but we came in and it was packed!

For us, especially, even in the morning there were a lot of school classes there cheering for us. This was special, especially with the relays, it was insane. I don’t remember all of it as I remember I was so dizzy, it was so loud.

The Dutch relay coach has tipped the Dutch team to finish inside the top five in the 4x400m relay in Tokyo. Do you think this is realistic?

Lisanne: I think we can be really good and I think what we showed in Doha when we made the final is we’re getting there. At the time our team is getting faster and faster and we are still very young. I think our team could be really good, especially with Tokyo being a year later now. I wouldn’t say we could make the top five but I would say everything is possible if we make the final.

I think every time we compete we just overdo ourselves; we do better than we expect and that’s because we all really want it - we want to show we’re not just a small Dutch country that can’t reach finals. We are not necessarily getting faster as the record is still from Rio but we keep doing better. I think that’s why we are so excited and I think that’s what you can see.

Lisanne, how pleased are you that you did a full indoor season not knowing when your next race is going to be now?

Yes! At the time I was just really happy to do it; it went really well and every race got better and I remember at the end I was really tired at the end and I thought ‘why did I do so many races?’ The World Indoor Championships was already cancelled so it was hard to fully focus until the end but it was still fun to do.

I was really happy I have a lot of racing already in my legs because otherwise there would be a year without races. For me I need races - others don’t for injuries or whatever - but I need a lot of racing so I’m really glad I did it.

Lisanne: you were talking on Instagram quite recently about your 2018 season which didn’t start off so well but ended with a bronze in Berlin. What did you learn about yourself in that season?

I think I learnt that everything is possible as long as you keep trying and believe in what you have been doing. The training wasn’t too bad from January to June - I was putting a lot of work in but nothing was working on the track. I kept racing and I felt so bad every time I had to step on the track and I ended up with a 54 behind my name and thinking ‘what is going on?’ I honestly didn’t get it and then suddenly I just felt better. 

At the beginning you really want to reach some sort of expectation and you feel pressure because everyone expects but at some point in Hengelo, I remember thinking: I’ll see what happens, I’ll just have fun; I don’t care if I come last, I will just try to see if it comes together. I broke 52 seconds, I think, and I thought: finally it’s getting better!

Even though I might have a couple of bad races, I should not give up, keep believing and it will come if training is going OK. I still don’t know what the problem was; I just know it turned around.

And will we see the De Witte sisters in Torun next year for the European Indoor Championships?

Laura: That would be a lot of fun but I have to admit I’m not really good indoors so it’s going to be a challenge! I think the next indoor season will be a lot bigger now because we probably won’t have any competitions this whole season so the indoor season is going to be pretty epic with a lot of competitions in a short period of time. It would definitely be fun.

Lisanne: Yes, we are going to be there!