The world 200m champion talks to AW about her brilliant breakthrough in Beijing and plans for the future
Dafne Schippers has enjoyed a monumental year.
In March she won the European indoor 60m title in Prague. Her summer began with the Great CityGames in Manchester followed by an injury-hit heptathlon in Gotzis in late May. She was just getting into her stride, though, because at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing she won 100m silver behind Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in a Dutch record of 10.83 before later winning the 200m title in a European record of 21.63.
Not content with that, Schippers then took on Allyson Felix in a much-anticipated 200m showdown in Brussels. It featured world 200m champion Schippers versus world 400m gold medallist Felix – and Schippers took victory in convincing style.
Her immediate reward? Just one hour sleep before a 6am taxi picked her up to take her to the airport for a flight to Newcastle for the Great North CityGames, where she enjoyed another victory, this time over 100m, before meeting Athletics Weekly to look back at her season.
“I’m looking forward to a holiday now,” she says. “I really need to take some rest. My mind and my body have been more tired every day. I just want to sit in the sun and have about four weeks off.”
After her recent exploits, finding a quiet holiday destination away from the media might not be easy. Her profile was already sizable but her world 200m title in Beijing has turned her into one of global athletics’ galacticos.
In her native Netherlands, a seal that was recently rescued from the old canal in her home city of Utrecht has been named after her. A road in Utrecht will also now be called the “Dafne Schipperslaan”.
“Yes it’s crazy but it’s very nice,” she says. “When I walk with my dog now, everybody comes over to me and talks to me. It’s new. It’s different. It’s nice but it is not always nice – there are two sides to it,” she adds, referring to the fame.
“When I walk with my dog now, everybody comes over to me and talks to me. It’s new. It’s different”
Certainly, Schippers handles the attention very well and is confident in interviews. But she clearly enjoys her life away from the track as well and her big passion is food and related to this she runs a blog called “Dafne Likes” where she lists recipes and describes her love of food.
So why so much adulation? Well, in Beijing she became the first European winner of a global sprint title since Yulia Nesterenko won the 100m at the 2004 Olympics. What’s more, her winning time of 21.63 was the fastest at sea-level since Florence Griffth-Joyner at the 1988 Olympics. Indeed, this has led some athletes and fans to describe Schippers as the unofficial world record-holder due to the suspicion of doubt that has hovered over Griffith-Joyner’s performances since her premature death in 1998, aged just 38. Then of course there is Marion Jones – the only other woman who has run faster than Schippers – as the American was famously banned for doping.
Schippers was born in Utrecht in 1992 and began athletics aged nine. In keeping with many Dutch children, she focused on a variety of events – a background that would eventually earn her world and European junior gold medals in heptathlon.
Gymnastics and tennis were also part of Schippers’ youth, but she preferred athletics and showed a rare talent for sprints in particular. In 2009, aged 17, she finished fourth in the heptathlon at the European Juniors in Serbia but struck gold at global junior level in combined events the following year in Canada. After this, she moved out of her parents’ house and to Papendal where she studied teaching with other talented youngsters in sport.
Saying this, her parents continued to support her career and along with her brother and sister are all involved in sport and they have followed Schippers to international championships as she has gone from junior heptathlon talent to world sprint champion.
Until very recently, though, Schippers has focused on combined events. After her fourth place in the European Juniors heptathlon in 2009, she went on to win gold in Tallinn in 2011. The following year she was 12th in the Olympic heptathlon, one place behind Brianne Theisen-Eaton of Canada and three places ahead of a young Katarina Johnson-Thompson of Britain as Jess Ennis-Hill took gold.
In 2013, she won heptathlon bronze in Moscow at the World Championships but also took European under-23 100m gold and it was obvious that a dilemma was forming – should she stick with combined events, or give sprinting a crack?
“It was a matter of curiosity,” she says. “I just wanted to give it a try and see how far I can reach if I concentrate on the sprints.”
In 2014 she won a sprint double at the European Championships in Zurich, with a Dutch record of 22.03 in the 200m. Victory in the 60m over Dina Asher-Smith came a few months later in Prague at the European Indoor Championships and everything seemed to be leaning moreso toward sprints.
“It was a matter of curiosity. I just wanted to give it a try and see how far I can reach if I concentrate on the sprints”
However, she still seemed undecided and, after finishing runner-up to Asher-Smith in the 150m and Jazmin Sawyers in the long jump at the Great CityGames in Manchester, she turned up at the Hypo-Meeting in Gotzis ready to take on Ennis-Hill and the world’s best heptathletes.
That ended badly, though, as she pulled out after six events with a knee injury. It seemed to make her mind up, too, because she soon announced that she would be focusing on sprints.
Ironically, the same Gotzis meeting 12 months earlier also probably helped push her toward concentrating on sprints. Schippers won the heptathlon there in May 2014 but after running a national record of 22.35 at the end of the first day it made her wonder what she could achieve fresh.
“As a sprinter I have all the Diamond Leagues and that is nice and I cannot do those as a heptathlete,” Schippers says, before adding with a wry smile: “This will be my first winter to train as a sprinter so let’s see what happens.”
During this winter, Schippers definitely plans to tackle the indoor season again. The Dutchwoman also welcomes the idea for global CityGames events and she agrees they fit into the annual calendar ideally from September to April so that they do not clash with the summer track and field meets.
Her motivation levels are high as well, as she explains: “The step from heptathlon to sprints is an easy step because it’s all new. It will be easy to motivate myself because I am training as a sprinter and it is all very new.”
Previously, she found the quest for perfection in heptathlon to be a frustrating battle. “I might for example do one shot put session per week,” she explains. “It’s not enough to be a good shot putter.”
But her heptathlon background gives her a distinct advantage. “Yes I think so and in your mind it’s easier. I know when I’m tired I can run faster (than my rivals) after several rounds.”
“This will be my first winter to train as a sprinter so let’s see what happens”
Schippers has a huge 2016 ahead with not only the Olympic Games but a European Championships on home soil in Amsterdam. Now a fully-committed sprinter, she might have abandoned heptathlon medal chances for the time being but there are plenty of medal opportunities in 100m, 200m and 4x100m.
“Being disqualified in Beijing was not so fun but we have a good, young relay team and I think if we train more together we can go for the medals,” she says.
Schippers also reveals that men who were part of the GB set-up in recent years have also helped her. First Rana Reider helped ease her move into sprints during training camps in Florida and also Netherlands – a country he has coached and lectured in during the past and has since made his base. Then there is Charles van Commenee, the former head coach for British Athletics.
“Charles has helped me with shot put and javelin,” she says. “It was very nice to work with him as he’s trained some big names.
“Whereas I am focusing on sprints now, I think in the winter I might do some shot put and javelin for fun. It’s good for your body and mind to do all the events.”
As Schippers chats, it is impossible for your eyes not to be drawn to the Olympic rings necklace with a small diamond in the middle that hangs around her neck. With the Games next year, Schippers will be going for gold and trying to emulate the achievements of an even greater Dutch athlete.
Fanny Blankers-Koen famously won four Olympic titles in 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m in London in 1948 and five European golds in 1946 and 1950. The Flying Housewife also shared a similar multi-talented ability to Schippers because she held national records in sprints, hurdles, long and high jump.
Only three Dutch athletes have won Olympic golds in track and field – Blankers-Koen, discus thrower Ria Stalman in 1984 and 800m runner Ellen Van Langen in 1992. Could Schippers be the fourth?
» This article was first published in the September 24 edition of AW magazine, which includes athlete features, profiles and the latest news each week