Some people would move halfway across the world to do what they love. Nienke Van Overveld, on the other hand, moved from her small hometown in the Netherlands to the city of Bangkok to take a break from CrossFit. CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program incorporating aerobic exercises, gymnastics, and weightlifting.
Nonetheless, Nienke was eventually drawn back to the social and physical elements of CrossFit. Having taken part in competitions both regionally and globally, it is surprising to find out that 22 year old Nienke took a 4-month break from CrossFit before her sudden rise in the Asia region in early 2016. In addition, she was only introduced to the sport 16 months ago. In this interview, we talk to her about her passion for CrossFit, her journey as a CrossFitter, and how she ended up halfway across the world doing what she loves.
What made you to decide to move halfway across the world to Thailand?
Like many other graduates, I did not know what I wanted to pursue when I graduated from college. Instead of rushing to pursue my Master’s degree, I decided that I wanted to take some time to volunteer with an orphanage as I have always had a desire to help others and a love for children.
It was around this time that I had started training as a CrossFit athlete. I took part in my first competition - but missed the finals by three spots. As a perfectionist, I drew the conclusion that CrossFit might not be for me which further perpetuated my decision to head to Thailand.
What were the reactions of your friends and family?
In the Netherlands, there is a huge emphasis on academics. My parents were initially not supportive of my idea to take a gap year. However, when I told them my plans of volunteering in an orphanage, they eventually relented and gave me their support.
How did you get started in CrossFit?
I had been involved in competitive gymnastics from a young age. At the age of 15, however, I suffered from a lower back injury which left me unable to compete. For about four years, I was unable to find any sport I loved, so I stopped exercising completely.
After some time, I felt like I needed to move again so I joined a local gym. One of the classes this gym offered was a strength and conditioning class (in other words, CrossFit). I immediately fell in love with both the physical and social aspects of the class.
As time progressed, the class moved into forming its own box (another name for a CrossFit "gym") called Crossfit Batteroaf Maastricht. Since the community was so tight, everyone moved into it together. It was during this time that I also started seeing marked improvements in my performance.
Given that you mention how important community is to you, wasn't it challenging to travel alone?
Yes, community is very important to me. However, it is a misconception that travelling solo is for individuals who are hermits or introverts. In fact, I feel the social part of me made it easier to travel alone - I loved making friends with random strangers, striking up conversations along the way, and found it easier to ask for help if I needed to. If I had been travelling with friends, I probably would not have stepped out of my comfort zone that easily. I would just have stayed stuck in my comfortable bubble.
What brought you back to CrossFit? What were some of the challenges?
After spending some time away, I knew I wanted to start moving again - my body just felt like it missed CrossFit!
I rushed back to a box in Bangkok, Training Ground, which I had visited a couple of times during my voluntary work. I knew the challenges that were associated with going back to training - in terms of having to start from scratch and some of the physical and mental fears I would have to go through again.
This time, however, I knew I was willing to push through them. This is also what keeps me going now when I am in the midst of challenges - I tell myself that I asked for this, I chose this path because the alternative of not doing CrossFit is a far scarier concept to me. It also helps me help others now who are starting from scratch because I can empathize with them, having started from the bottom myself.
Soon after starting CrossFit again, the competitive team at Training Ground (East West Crossfit) asked me to compete with them for the 2016 Pacific Regionals. It coincided with the end of my time volunteering so I decided to take a chance.
What are some of the challenges as a female CrossFitter?
CrossFit is a challenging sport. It is not only a physically taxing sport but an emotional/mental one as well. You set your own limits and choose whether to listen to that voice in your head telling you that you can or you can't.
At first, as a female CrossFitter, the challenge had to do with the body that comes with being a CrossFitter. In other words, having more muscle drew unnecessary comments from people although I was actually growing into a more functional and healthy person.
This is so different from guys who compete in Crossfit because muscles tend to be celebrated on males. However, I have completely come to terms with who I am and my body now.
What are some sacrifices you have had to make?
While I love CrossFit, there are many sacrifices I have had to make as an athlete. I often have to miss social events, ranging from drinks to late night partying to get the rest I need for training. Also, the need to watch my diet in order to perform my best can be a social struggle.
I try to turn this into a positive by trying to come up with interesting recipes and spins on foods that may otherwise seem boring. I also have awesome friends and training partners who understand my needs and the way I live.
What competitions have you taken part in? Which has been the most challenging thus far?
I have taken part in several competitions such as the Lowlands Throwdown qualifier (September 2015) and the Crossfit Open 2016 (where I unexpectedly placed 13th in Asia). The most recent competition I took part in was the Asia Championships West Sectionals in Bangkok where I emerged as the champion and the Tovmasjan Invitational in the Netherlands where I finished in 3rd place.
Who do you turn to for support and who are your biggest inspirations?
When the going gets tough, I turn to my training partners and family for support.
I draw my inspiration from any and everyone - I think it is inspiring to meet various athletes who have been to the Crossfit Games but I also find inspiration in the many others I meet daily. For example, the mother who finds time in her busy schedule to make it down to the box or the officer who has a 9-5 job but still makes changes for his health.
What are your plans going forward?
I just received my acceptance into the Human Movement Sciences: Sport, Exercise and Health Master’s program in Amsterdam to start a track in Sport Psychology.
I also want to see how far I can get as a CrossFit athlete. One of my first aims is to compete at the final of the Lowlands Throwdown 2016 in October (the competition that led me to take a break from CrossFit before my journey to Thailand in 2015).
What are your top 3 tips for younger girls?
1. Always do what YOU love to do.
2. Take risks
3. It's ok to fail.
View more of Nienke's adventures and journey on her Instagram @nienkevanoverveld.