Femke Bol was all fired up. With eyes on the podium and heart beating with the hopes and emotions of her country, the 23-year-old Dutch was on her way to glory.
She was part of the Netherlands’ mixed 4×400 team and was chosen to run the final lap and take them home, on the opening day of the 2023 World Athletics Championship in Budapest. But what makes the track interesting is its unpredictability. When she was just 50m away from the gold, tragedy struck. Femke Bol who was leading the pack fell face down on the track.
Her lead meant she could have gotten up, finished and earned her team a grandstand finish, but the baton slipped from her hand making her unable to finish. It arguably was the darkest moment of an athlete’s career. She did not just let herself down, she let her team and her country down. An emotional blow so hard that it takes experienced athletes years to recover from.
But Bol is made up of different mettle. She turned agony into ecstasy in just five days, winning gold in women’s 400-metre hurdles. Bol arrived in Budapest as the favourite to win the event. World record-holder Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the only one who could have challenged Bol, chose to skip the event to focus on the 400 metres. Bol came in second behind McLaughlin-Levrone last summer in Oregon. And now without her, no one could be envisaged beating Bol. Until the opening day.
Runs past personal demons
Bol did not just run past her opponents; she ran past her personal demons. Exhibiting extreme psychological willpower, she cruised past others to open a wide lead and finish comfortably in 51.70 seconds, the second-best time of her career. After the race, she said “Everyone felt, ‘ok, well, on paper she’s by far the winner. She’s going to win it’”. But it is never comforting to know the whole world is expecting you to succeed. It is expectations that let one down. Mix that expectation with the agony of going down, one can see the battles Bol fought to get her gold.
“I think a lot of people felt when I got the stick (in the relay) we would have won gold easily,” Bol explains. “We didn’t get it… I want to be my best self and I think I did this today.” Right off the start, it was clear the race was Bol’s to control, and the real race was for the second position.
Bol credits her teammates, coaches, family and psychologist for the stunning comeback. “They supported me,” says Bol. “At one point, we said, ‘OK, tournament one (the mixed relay) is done. Tournament two (400 hurdles) starts and we’re going to go through the rounds of hurdles and get confidence and do my best.’”
She was greeted at the finishing line with signs that read ‘Femke, Bol them’. But this was just part one of her comeback story. She made it up to herself, but she still had to make up for her team. And she did so at the final track event of the Championship, the women’s 4×400 relay. Bol who went down from a winning position on the opening day, came from behind to win her team gold.
Bol’s Championship story is a circular tale, with the same stage for the opening and the end. The only difference was Bol’s determination to make amends. She stood firm where anyone else would have faltered.
Bol found herself with the responsibility of running the last lap once again. But she made it clear with her performance that the responsibility was not a burden. She embraced the challenge and let the world know who she was. Taking over the baton couple of metres behind Jamaican Stacey Ann Williams and British Nicole Yeargin, she found herself about ten metres behind the leader Williams by the back straight.
Bol was not ready to go down without a fight. She passed Yeargin 30 metres behind the line and took the first place with her last two strides, taking Netherlands home in 3:20:72 ahead of Jamaica’s 3:20:88.
“The first three legs went so well, I felt like I had to finish as strongly as I could,” Bol said after the race. “I wanted to stay patient, but in the last metres I said ‘No, we have to take it’. She took it and made it up to her team. She managed to turn Bronze into gold within a distance of 30 metres and agony into ecstasy within the span of a week.
After a heroic tale of turning tides, Bol has already set her sights on the next target: the Paris Olympics. She already has an Olympic podium after winning bronze in the 400-metre hurdles last time in Tokyo and is now set to go all the way in Paris.